For motorcycle champ Laia Sanz, Extreme E will be extreme learning curve for racing cars


(Editor’s note: Second in a series highlighting drivers such as Laia Sanz in Extreme E, which will begin its inaugural season this weekend in Saudi Arabia)

As a 10-time starter in the Dakar Rally and the highest-finishing woman in its vaunted motorcycle division, Laia Sanz would seem at home in the sands of Saudi Arabia.

But as Extreme E begins its inaugural season this weekend on the Arabian Peninsula, it’s not so much the terrain as the traction that will make this a monumental challenge for Sanz, who will be teamed with three-time Dakar champion Carlos Sainz on the Acciona/Sainz XE team.

Sanz has won more than 20 championships in outdoor motorcycling enduro-style events, but she hardly has raced on four wheels during her career.

EMPOWERING WOMEN: W Series champion hoping Extreme E will continue momentum

“Everything! I’m a beginner,” Sanz told NBC Sports when asked about the most difficult part of the transition she will make in Extreme E. “Of course the riders switching to cars, we have the feeling and are used to the speed, and all these things are good. But everything is new. We have two more wheels! You need to understand how it’s working with a car and suspensions, and I need to get experience.

“And in this championship, there will be contact (between vehicles). We’ll start together. It’s even worse for me because I’m not used to having contact with opponents. In enduro, you fight against chrono — against time. You’re never in a direct fight with your opponents.”

Motorcycle enduro champion Laia Sanz and rally legend Carlos Sainz will be teamed on the Acciona/Sainz XE team in the Extreme E Series (The Crown Creators).

Sanz also will be racing in an Odyssey 21 electric SUV against opponents with vast and versatile experience from Formula One, rally and sports cars. But she will have the tutelage of Sainz, a two-time World Rally Championship winner and considered a national motorsports hero in their home country of Spain. At 58, he remains highly competitive in his fifth decade of racing, finishing third at Dakar this year after a victory in 2020.

“Carlos called me, and as you can imagine, I was in shock because I’ve been following him since I was really young,” Sanz said. “I’ve been always a big fan of rallies. For sure it’s super nice to be with him on the team.

“His career is so long, and he won different kind of races with different cars. He’s really respected in Spain because he’s still there competing at his age and still motivated and pushing. For sure, I’ll try to learn fast because I know he’s super competitive and always wants to win. This time it’s also really important with what the girls are trying to do. So I’ll try to learn fast.”

Laia Sanz got acclimated to the Spark Odyssey 21 electric SUV during preseason testing at MotorLand Aragon (Jordi Rierola/Extreme E).

Sanz, 35, has been competing on bikes since she was 6, finishing a career-best ninth in the 2015 Dakar Rally, but will be new to the concept of team competition, as well as Extreme E’s gender equitable format in which the female and male driver count equally toward the results.

“This will be really interesting,” she said. “For sure in motorsports for us, it’s not easy. I feel lucky that I’ve been in factory teams in Dakar, but I have to work so hard to prove a lot of things. And this time it’s nice, we have a nice chance to prove we are competitive, and for sure, in my case, our performance will be important as Carlos’ performance. This is nice but for sure also a bit of pressure.”

She has prepared by making her first start in an off-road race this year in Dubai, racing a Side by Side (a buggy that she describes as halfway between bike and car). Sanz is hopeful that Extreme E could be a springboard to moving eventually into the car class at Dakar.

“Of course, I think I need time to learn,” she said. “I know I can learn a lot because if you tell me 15 years ago, that I could be here now, for sure I don’t believe it. I also switched from three wheels to rally bikes and got good results in Dakar.

“I think with hard work, I can learn a lot, but I need time, and this series it’s for sure an amazing chance to be close to Carlos and learn a lot. For sure I’ll fight to be in a car in Dakar in the future.”

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Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)