DeFrancesco learns from Texas error but vows to stay aggressive, use haters ‘as fuel’


Devlin DeFrancesco made a mistake at Texas Motor Speedway — no ifs, ands or buts about that — and he takes full blame for the three-car crash that also wiped out veterans Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal.

The other two incidents he has been blamed for? Well, DeFrancesco has his own opinions on any role he played in race-ending crashes for Takuma Sato and Kyle Kirkwood. Blame doesn’t really matter at this point, though: his IndyCar debut on an oval was marred by three separate incidents.

Mistakes and overaggressive driving can be bad for a reputation, particularly for a rookie trying to change the narrative surrounding his IndyCar arrival.

“People think I am just this rich kid in Miami that’s going racing and that’s just not the case,” DeFrancesco, who was the highest-qualifying rookie at Texas in 17th, told The Associated Press. “I worked my ass off to make this happen, from a physical side, from a mental standpoint, anything that could get me better. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”

DeFrancesco is in his first season at the top level of American open-wheel racing (and part of a large rookie class), driving for Andretti Autosport in a Honda fielded in partnership with George and Julia Steinbrenner. He landed the promotion after one season in Indy Lights, where DeFrancesco earned a pair of podium finishes but was winless in 20 races. He finished sixth in the standings, far behind then-Andretti teammate Kirkwood and runner-up David Malukas.

Kirkwood and Malukas combined for 17 victories and both also moved up to IndyCar this season. But it was DeFrancesco who landed a seat with Andretti, one of the top teams in IndyCar. Kirkwood had to leave the organization to find a job with A.J. Foyt Racing. Malukas drives for Dale Coyne Racing.

Giving a seat to DeFrancesco over Kirkwood, a winner at every level of IndyCar’s ladder system, raised eyebrows but was staunchly defended by Michael Andretti. The team owner has insisted that DeFrancesco rates highly on the Andretti talent board and was faster than both Kirkwood and Malukas in initial IndyCar testing.

The 22-year-old dual citizen of Canada and Italy comes from a wealthy family and his father, entrepreneur Andy DeFrancesco, has funded much of his son’s career. Alleging that’s the only reason DeFrancesco has his seat is unfair, the driver said, and he has shown talent: DeFrancesco was largely overlooked when fellow IndyCar drivers Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward teamed in January to win their class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona; it was DeFrancesco who turned the fastest lap of the race in that car.

“A lot of people think that I don’t deserve to be here, it’s no secret, everyone reads social media. My phone vibrates quite a lot when all the notifications come up,” DeFrancesco said. “But at the end of the day, I use it as fuel.”

He also puts the work in off the track, which is partly why he chose to live in Miami when he returned from racing in the F3 Series in Europe at the end of 2020.

“Seven days a week I’m training for this one purpose – to do well in IndyCar racing,” DeFrancesco said. “I eat, sleep and breathe this. I’m not a party person. Miami is a good place for all the training and the boxing and the biking that I do, and I go karting three days a week.”

DeFrancesco said he makes the hourlong drive to Homestead-Miami Speedway three times a week to hone his craft, and spends most evenings on his simulator learning everything he can about both the Indy car and the tracks on this year’s schedule. Prior to Texas on Sunday, the only other oval he’d ever raced was at Gateway outside St. Louis.

So, yes, he made a mistake when he tried to go inside for a risky three-wide move that ended with three crashed cars. He apologized afterward to both Castroneves and Rahal, and both went easy on DeFrancesco after the accident.

“As I said to Devlin, I think he’s got a bright future,” Rahal said. “He’ll learn from these mistakes.”

DeFrancesco had a follow-up chat with four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves to understand what he did wrong and “it’s just not something I will do again,” he vowed.

In the opener on the street course in St. Petersburg, DeFrancesco finished 22nd in the 26-car field but he was the last car on the lead lap and didn’t move out of the way as leaders Scott McLaughlin and Alex Palou closed in on him while racing for the victory.

McLaughlin held off Palou for the win – Palou and DeFrancesco are both Honda drivers while McLaughlin drives a Chevrolet – but DeFrancesco said he was running his race. His team radioed for him to simply stay out of the leaders’ way and keep going, he said, so he did.

He’s no different than any other driver in that he has partners to keep happy. Though funding does come through his father, he and the Steinbrenners have secured outside sponsorship. DeFrancesco pointed specifically to a deal with PowerTap, brought to Andretti by the driver.

He isn’t letting Texas shake his confidence and is determined to show his talent.

“I spoke to a lot of people who have won a hell of a lot of races on ovals to get their insight, and I am going to race hard and I’m going to race aggressively,” DeFrancesco said. “It’s no secret I made a mistake, and it’s a mistake I won’t make again, and at the end of the day the only way to change people’s minds is when the 29 crew gets a good result. I think it’s coming.”

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


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.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

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

“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