(This story will be updated regularly throughout today's testing.)
AVONDALE, Ariz. – The second day of the Verizon IndyCar Series open test at Phoenix Raceway started with a bang for Alexander Rossi.
Less than five minutes into this afternoon’s three-hour practice, Rossi lost control of his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda and spun into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier on the 1.022-mile oval. The car made hard contact, but Rossi exited without assistance from the Holmatro Safety Team and was quickly cleared to resume driving by the INDYCAR medical team.
Rossi was on just his second full lap of the day when the mishap occurred. It’s the first significant wall contact that the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion has had on an oval since joining the series last year.
“I’m not completely sure what happened because the car felt fine -- it just got loose and snapped," Rossi said. "The car was good going into Turn 1, I went down to the bottom and the back end came out. The test has been productive overall, so this is a pretty big setback.
"The car has been great this weekend and I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made ahead of this incident. This was my first real contact with the wall – better here than in qualifying or the race – and it won’t stop me from pushing hard.”
Et tu, Graham?
When Rossi crashed early in today’s first practice session, fellow Honda drivers Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal were strapped into their own cars in pit lane, about to make qualifying simulation runs.
Little, they said, is more unnerving for a driver than having a fellow competitor crash just before they are about to make qualifying run on a race weekend.
“Yeah, even with the helmet on I think it was pretty distinctive that something big had happened,” Bourdais, driver of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, said of the thud heard when Rossi backed into the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2. “My spotter came on the radio and was like, ‘Oh boy, that was big.’ We never really want to hear that. And I was about to go and do a qual run as well. It was like, 'Damn, I didn't really want to hear that right before.' It kind of hurts a little bit the confidence.”
“Yeah, I was in the same spot. I was literally buckling in (to the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda) and we were going to go do a qual sim,” Rahal said. “As a driver, that's one of the hardest situations and challenges to go through is you see that, you hear it and you know you're next man up. So it's always hard to just get it out of your mind.
“I've been in the qualifying line at Indy sitting there next to go and (Ryan Hunter-Reay) crashed in '08 right before – it was my first-ever qualifying at Indy, too – and I'm sitting there just absolutely sweating bullets.”
Ironically, Rahal found the wall in Turn 2 about 30 minutes into tonight’s final practice, though his hit was of less impact than that of Rossi. Rahal, too, was uninjured.
“(Josef) Newgarden had just come out of the pits and I was trying to get a run on him going down the back to get clear of him and catch back up to the group that I was behind,” explained Rahal. “The thing was building understeer up until that point and, once I got close to him, the rear just went. It’s unfortunate, the guys certainly don’t need any more work and I obviously didn’t want to bring the thing home on the wrecker. I don’t think the damage is extensive but it’s enough to tick us off. It’s frustrating because the test has been going good. To end it that way is disappointing.”
Welcome back, were you really gone?
JR Hildebrand returns to fulltime Verizon IndyCar Series driving this season for the first time since 2012. The 29-year-old Californian drove the past three seasons at Indianapolis – in the Indy 500 three times and the INDYCAR Grand Prix twice – for Ed Carpenter Racing and took on additional team testing duties last summer when Newgarden was recuperating from crash injuries.
So when Hildebrand was named as Newgarden’s replacement in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for 2017, it wasn’t like a stranger was entering the car.
“JR has been a part of this team the past three years,” team owner Ed Carpenter said. “Even though he hasn't been in the car as much as we wanted, he was still kind of in tune with what we were doing all the time, communicating with myself, Josef, the engineers.
“So it's not your typical new driver coming into a team. He's pretty familiar with how we operate and with most of the key people. … We've worked together the past three years at Indy and obviously JR helped us a lot more last year with some testing. It's just nice to finally be able to give him an opportunity to be back fulltime Indy car racing.”
Hildebrand has already shown his potential this weekend, running in the top four of Friday's opening practice and clocking a lap of 19.0401 seconds (193.234 mph) in the first hour of today's practice that is quicker than the track record set last year by Helio Castroneves (19.0997, 192.631 mph). Official lap records may only be set during qualifications or in the race.
Kanaan and Phoenix Raceway: a 20-year love affair
Something about Phoenix Raceway and Tony Kanaan agree with each other. In four career races on the 1.022-mile oval, Kanaan has won twice (2003, ’04), placed third (’05) and fourth (’16). An admitted short-oval lover, Kanaan credited his time more than two decades ago with the Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team in 1996-97.
“Back in the Indy Lights days, I remember when I used to come to this kind of place, (team owner) Steve Horne used to let me drive all day long, just like trying to teach me stuff,” Kanaan said. “I think that paid off big time.”
Kanaan began racing Indy cars in 1998, but the short-oval experience from Indy Lights didn’t pay off immediately.
“If you look at my results in '98 and '99, I started dead last every single mile oval I did,” said the driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. “I was told that that was probably not supposed to be my thing, so I guess that got under my skin and I worked really hard to improve that. Whatever it is, it suits my driving style. Obviously I've been on good teams as well that provide me good cars. It's always good to come back to a place that you know you did well, you know you won a couple races here, so it's always a good feeling.”
Grandma’s an INDYCAR fan!
James Hinchcliffe gained notoriety for himself and the Verizon IndyCar Series when he made it to the finals of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” celebrity competition last fall. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver joked that the exposure will draw a new demographic of INDYCAR fans.
“Yeah, I'm everybody's grandmother's favorite,” Hinchcliffe said. “That's the new thing: ‘Oh, my grandmother loved you on the show!’
“It's bringing a whole new demographic of fan to INDYCAR, which was a huge motivator for doing it in the first place. When you're on a program that draws 10 to 11 million people a week, that's pretty big numbers, so you're bound to get recognized a little bit more. Like I said, a big part of wanting to do it was to kind of help the visibility of the sport and I think we kind of did that. Hopefully we see some ‘Dancing’ fans in the grandstands this year.”
Newgarden the new kid at Penske
Josef Newgarden admits he’s still adapting to walking into a different team transporter this season.
In fact, when he arrived at Phoenix Raceway on Thursday, he had to ask crew members which of the four identically painted Team Penske transporters he was supposed to enter.
“I’m that new,” he joked as he entered one.
Of course, Newgarden, the burgeoning Verizon IndyCar Series star who joined the famed team in the offseason, has been welcomed into its inner sanctum by drivers Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. Also, Rick Mears, the retired four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who is now a team consultant and spotter, spends his time on weekends like this at in the transporters.
As someone who grew up revering the legendary Mears, Newgarden said it takes some getting used to.
“Sometimes I don’t feel I belong,” he said.