Iowa Speedway poses a physical and mental test for IndyCar drivers


The conditions for Tony Kanaan’s return to the NTT IndyCar Series at Iowa Speedway tonight (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) will be sweltering.

Which is just swell for the Ironman triathlete veteran (and also the Ironman of IndyCar with a record streak of 318 consecutive starts that ended earlier this month) who trains religiously.

“I love it; I think the hotter and the more difficult it is, the better for me,” Kanaan, who will be back in the No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing, said about a forecast for Newton, Iowa, in the low 90s with high humidity. “That’s what I train for. I train for difficult situations. I train to be able to have that edge on people that don’t. Unfortunately, I know that a lot of the guys are doing the same. I used to think I have a bigger edge on them.

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“To be honest, they had two extremely hot races already, so they’re more accustomed than I am. … I think it’s going to be extremely tough. But I’m ready. That is something that when I decided to become the athlete or the race car driver that I am today, one thing that I said was never going to lack is my physical condition.”

Iowa Speedway might be the biggest test yet of during an IndyCar season in which heat already has been a major factor because of the new aeroscreen. After complaints about stifling cockpit conditions on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, IndyCar tested a new cooling device at Road America that will be implemented this weekend. The “air scoop” attachment will increase airflow in the cockpit, and teams will be allowed an optional second cool duct for drivers’ helmets (as well as an extra crew member for assistance).

The bumpy 0.894-mile oval just east of Des Moines, Iowa, still will be a very physical test. As IndyCar on NBCSN analyst James Hinchcliffe notes in the video above, the loading of 3.5-4 Gs in the corners puts a heavy stress on the lungs and forces many drivers to hold their breath through the turns during 17-second laps that allow for minimal rest on the straightaways.

And after a 250-lap IndyCar Iowa Speedway test tonight, there hardly will be a chance to recover for 250 laps again Saturday.

During his Off Track podcast with Hinchcliffe, Rossi said this weekend will be the “hardest test that anyone’s had in IndyCar” since he joined the series in 2016, and he openly wondered whether drivers might succumb to the elements during the second race.

Felix Rosenqvist after his Road America victory (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

Felix Rosenqvist, who broke through for his first career victory Sunday at Road America, has been bicycling for hundreds of miles this year, but “it’s a different kind of fitness you need” for the neck muscles that are being overworked inside the car, particularly when battling withering heat that can make the body “panicked” without cooling or water.

“It’s different when you have physical fatigue and heat fatigue,” Rosenqvist said. “The heat is almost like you panic in the car. You just want to get out. There’s been some ways we’ve worked on the cooling solutions. I think we’re getting more clever, all the teams, on how to use that to efficiently cool the driver down during these kinds of races like Indy GP. But yeah, (Iowa is) going to be a huge challenge, and I don’t think anyone knows how it’s going to go. Can only prepare for the worst.

“It’s not a pleasant place to be, but it’s what we have to deal with, and I think you have to try to beat the others in that area.”

The veterans figure to have an edge on the five drivers who will be making their IndyCar Iowa Speedway debuts this weekend. That group includes Arrow McLaren SP Motorsports teammates Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew.

Pato O’Ward celebrates winning the pole position Sunday at Road America (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

“I think we’re in for a treat this weekend,” said O’Ward, who is coming off a career-best second at Road America. “The recovery after the first race is going to be key. It’s going to be very important to be nice and fresh for Saturday. Even if they’re at night, the humidity and heat is still there. We’re all going into it like we’re getting thrown in there and you have to survive. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you can give up.’ No, no, no, no. You have to survive.

“So I think we’re going in it as prepared as possible. Very hydrated. Make sure your food is very clean and everything and then just hang on to it for the whole race, because it is going to be a long one.”

Askew and O’Ward are former winners at Iowa with both having claimed victories in the Road to Indy ladder series (Askew in 2017 with USF2000; O’Ward in Indy Lights in 2018).

Askew said “being worried about it is the biggest part of preparation. For me, this is going to be the hardest race of the year so far because it’s a doubleheader. Because the track is so short, there’s not much time to rest because it’s going to be hot. Because it’s bumpy. So there’s a lot of variables being thrown at us. Both Pato and I have been training as best we can and hydrating as best we can trying to recover from the last weekend at Road America.

IndyCar Iowa Speedway
Oliver Askew said “being worried” is the biggest part of preparing for Iowa Speedway (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“It’s going to be very difficult at the end of stints (at Iowa) when the tires are going away, and you’re mentally drained, and super hot. You need to have this voice in the back of your head to remind yourself not to make any crucial mistakes or really pay attention to what’s going on. Because it’s very easy to lose the car in that state of mind. You’re looking forward to the challenge for sure. It’s going to be difficult for everybody. We just have to be more prepared for it.”

There are no such fitness concerns for Kanaan, who will get to focus on basking in some deserved attention for his second start of the season after the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner missed the last three races. Kanaan will give the command to start engines tonight as IndyCar Iowa Speedway’s grand marshal, a role that will filled by fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves in Saturday’s race

“That’s so cool; I’ve been getting so much back,” said Kanaan, who is on a five-race “TK’s Last Lap” tour but still hopes to race in 2021. “It’s amazing. It’s something that it’s hard for me because I’m very emotional.

“I’m going to have to actually hold my breath because I’m really easy to get emotional when people are doing stuff and I actually knowing that. It’s an honor. I’m glad I’m doing from inside the car, to be honest. I’m excited. It’s one of those things that I didn’t expect it at all. I think it was a nice gesture. I can’t wait.”

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The 2004 series champion also is a 2010 IndyCar Iowa Speedway winner with 13 starts and five podiums on IndyCar’s shortest track, which he described as a bigger mental than physical test.

“For me the mental fatigue, it’s really tough,” Kanaan said. “It’s a lot tougher. You kind of not have trained for that. Your body, you can lift weights, do cardio, this and that, (but) your mind.

“I’m expecting to be extremely drained after the two races, but I’m ready.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

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“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500