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Defending 500 Champion Rossi Feeling Optimistic

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 28 2017

Alexander Rossi and team owner Michael Andretti are hoping for another happy ending at Indy on Sunday.

INDIANAPOLIS – Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi never will be accused of vanity. Monday will mark the one-year anniversary of his improbable victory as a rookie in the historic 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Time to dust off that DVD for a quick review, prior to Sunday’s 101st edition?

“I’ve legitimately not watched the race at all,” Rossi said during a Media Day session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday. “I’ve watched a lot of other 500s; I have not watched that one.”

And why not?

“I know what happened,” Rossi said.

Fair enough, and typical of Rossi’s pragmatic view of life in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Rossi will launch defense of his title in Sunday’s 200-lapper from the outside of a three-car front row led by pole-sitter Scott Dixon and No. 2 qualifier Ed Carpenter.

“I’m optimistic. I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied.  I feel confident,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts- Curb Honda that is part of Andretti Autosport’s six-car armada. “We’ve got a lot more to prove. Last year was great but it’s a new year, man. You can’t continue to dwell on what you did because the wave only lasts for so long.

“This whole experience has been much more natural because I know what to expect to have a good day on Sunday. I’ve got another four oval races under my belt, so I’m a little more comfortable with it. Every day you’re running in a race car around here, it’s a very unique place, you’re always learning and you always have to go into it with that attitude because it

The Borg Warner trophy is in the house at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

can really bite you very quickly. I feel like I’ve never maximized it fully yet and still working on doing that.”

Rossi finished seventh among the 33 starters turning hot laps around the 2.5-mile oval during Friday’s Carb Day practice, topping-out at 225.355 mph.

“Each day we did our own program,” Rossi said. “We never looked at time sheets, we executed in qualifying and the race car in traffic seems pretty good. Around here practice lap times are so hard to read into. It’s just about evolving the right way and making methodical changes and it continually got better each time we went out. Hopefully that continues not only through the weekend but for the rest of the year.”

Rossi won last year’s race via a savvy fuel strategy directed by former Indy car driver Bryan Herta, an upset that shocked the motorsports world. Rossi admitted the true significance of his win did not sink in until two to four months after swigging the traditional bottle of milk in Victory Circle.

“For sure, it sank in and as this process continued to evolve I was not expecting it to go on for as long as it did,” Rossi said. “There were certain moments along that timeline that were more special. For me, the two highlights were when my likeness was unveiled on the Borg Warner (Trophy) and then the (2017) ticket unveil. Those are two things any sports person would dream of _ to have their face on the trophy and also to be on the ticket.”

Rossi said his personal life has not been changed by winning the greatest auto race in the world. “I get that question a lot more,” the native Californian deadpanned. “My mortgage is paid for now, that’s cool. But from a professional standpoint it did (change). There’s more eyes on us, right, but that’s the goal. And I guess because of that, there’s more of a responsibility. There was a lot more opportunities that presented themselves that probably wouldn’t have had I not won.

“My career path took a direction to stay in the U.S., which I’m very happy about. I’m very pleased to be in the Verizon IndyCar Series and to be with Andretti Autosport and Honda. And the fact that NAPA Auto Parts renewed in a series they haven’t had a history of being in…I hope to build a platform and win more races.”

Rossi, who parked his pursuit of a Formula One ride to race in INDYCAR, said he has come to appreciate the history and traditions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past 12 months.

“Can’t even explain it,” Rossi said. “I now have what every other driver spoke about last year _ that desire to win. You think about it every time you drive by this place, like ‘I want it to be May and I want it to be race day and I want to do it again.’ I learned more about it, the 500, and now the year kind of revolves around it. It’s a pretty special thing. And I know how to put a wreath on now.”

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Three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves always has something to say about everything, and the popular Brazilian held court during his Media Day scrum.

Helio Castroneves is going for No. 4 on Sunday. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

Castroneves capped an uneven Month of May by posting the fastest lap during the final one-hour Carb Day practice at 227.377 mph on Friday. That served as a huge morale boost after he failed to advance into the Fast Nine Shootout the previous weekend, and wound up in the No. 19 starting spot.

“Well, it sucks. That’s a quote, but it’s in and over,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet. “Actually we have a very good balance in the car. I feel that we have a tremendous chance. It might take a little bit long, but we have a tremendous chance to go up through the field and put ourselves to win this race. I have the team, I have the mechanics, I know what needs to be done. Just got to put it together now.”

Castroneves also said he was pleased to see the pre-race attention being generated by Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso, a two-time World Driving Champion who will make his first Indy 500 start Sunday in the No. 29 McLaren-Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport.

“Some drivers might be a little bit upset that he’s getting a lot more attention,” said Castroneves, a man with a personality that barely fits inside the Speedway. “I’m actually super-happy that he’s here because he’s bringing not only the attention but (someone) in his caliber to do what he’s doing _ leaving Monaco to race in one of “The Greatest Spectacles in Racing’ in the world _ it shows that everybody wants to do this but they might not have the guts to do that. That, for me, is big respect. I like that.”

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Two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who will wrap up a two-race/IMS-only stint with Team Penske on Sunday, said he has not missed running the full 2017 schedule.

“No, it’s been good because it gives me time to work with (son) Sebastian in the karting,” said Montoya, who was replaced at the end of the 2016 season by Josef Newgarden. “Long-term, I’m pretty happy where we’re going and where things are heading.” JPM added he and his son will be off to Europe soon for an extended series of summertime karting events.

Montoya will start Sunday’s race 18th in the No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet after qualifying at 229.565 mph. On Friday, the native of Colombia placed ninth at the end of Carb Day practice with a hot lap of 226.187 mph.

“It’s been really, really good,” Montoya said of his prodigal son-like experience. “I feel the Penske program is always very strong, it’s always where you want to be. I feel very lucky to still be here.”

Teammate Helio Castroneves said Juan Pablo has been a welcomed addition to Roger Penske’s five-car lineup. “It’s just like some food that you have and something’s missing and you put something spicy, the Tabasco _ that’s Juan Pablo,” Castroneves said. “He starts to spice it up, but in a good way. I’m obviously a big fan of this guy and I know the talent he is. It’s great to have him back. I say he’s the A.J. Foyt of our era. Everything he sits down, whatever it is, he’s gonna make go fast.”

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James Davison’s abbreviated Week of May saw the Australian log 34 laps during Carb Day as substitute for the rehabbing Sebastien Bourdais. Davison, hired to drive the No. 18 GEICO Honda after Bourdais crashed during his qualifying attempt the previous Saturday, will start 33rd and last on Sunday.

Bourdais suffered multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in a violent crash exiting Turn 2. Released from IU Health Methodist Hospital on Wednesday, the 38-year-old native of Le Mans, France, is hopeful of returning to the series before the season ends in mid-September. Davison, 30, has been hired on what so far is a one-off contract.

“Look, the moment Sebastien had his accident the team’s program was clearly compromised _ they lost their primary driver and they lost their primary car,” Davison said. “Our backup car is a road-course car that is not set-up with all the fine-tuning that makes these cars fast on an oval. As a result, we have limited expectations going into the race. We know we don’t have a car that’s capable of winning or getting a top-10 with outright speed, but we can at least tune a car to handle well through the traffic and secure a good result inside the top-10, potentially, with allowing the race to come to us.

“So we’re having to be smart. At a minimum, I’d like to finish in the top half of the field, which I was able to achieve in my rookie race here three years ago. And anything close to the top-10 would be fantastic.”

A third-generation racer, Davison started 28th and finished 16 in the 2014 Indy 500 as a rookie driving for KV Racing Technology. He started 33rd and finished 27th at IMS in 2015 driving for Dale Coyne Racing. Prior to Monday’s post-qualifying practice, Davison had not driven an Indy car in two years. Davison finished 16th on the Carb Day speed chart at 225.018 mph.

Currently competing in the Pirelli World Challenge in an Aston Martin Vantage GT3, Davison _ who bears a striking facial resemblance to a young Jim Clark _ said the Verizon IndyCar Series remains his ultimate destination.

“Absolutely. To be racing in INDYCAR _ how big its history has been and the Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world _ I’m absolutely where I want to be here,” said Davison, a graduate of the Indy Lights open-wheel feeder series. “There’s only so many opportunities to get into INDYCAR or Formula One and part of it’s out of your control. So I found myself in sports car racing, and still being able to do the Indy 500 _ this is potentially my break to have the opportunity to have a career in Indy car racing, if I’m able to secure the seat for the rest of the season, or at least Detroit, and prove myself even further.

“I’m not expecting that I can go in and set the world on fire, but run competitively, and we’ll see what happens. This is where I want to be.”

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Indy’s annual “engine war” between Honda and Chevrolet produced a mild ambush in qualifying for the Bowtie Brigade. Verizon IndyCar Series owner/driver Ed Carpenter and teammate JR Hildebrand qualified their Chevrolet-powered cars second and sixth, respectively, and in front of all of Team Penske’s five-car juggernaut.

“We’ve had strong cars here the past several years,” said Carpenter, a two-time Indy 500 pole-sitter who posted a four-lap/10-mile average speed of 231.664 mph in his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka Chevy. “We’ve got a pretty good handle on this package, this aero kit here at Indianapolis. (Former teammate) Josef Newgarden was the highest-qualified Chevrolet for the team and Chevrolet last year.

“I think between myself and Team Penske and even the (two) Foyt cars, they always race better than they qualify, so by no means do I think we have to just focus on Honda. The field is strong from top to bottom. I’m just focused on what we need out of the car.”

Hildebrand’s four-lap average was 230.889 mph in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Service Chevy. Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champion, qualified on-pole at 232.164 mph in his No. 9 Camping World Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I feel like I’ve got a strong car,” Carpenter said. “There’s been days when Will Power (of Team Penske) had a strong car. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi (in Andretti Autosport Hondas) probably have been two of the more consistent ones. Scott Dixon obviously is strong. I haven’t seen him in as many long runs as the Andretti guys, so I certainly expect to be racing Ryan.

“It’s a really cut-throat competition right now. Both engine manufacturers are putting a ton of effort into it, and I’m certainly happy with what Chevrolet has given me in an engine and aero kit. Excited to see what else we can squeeze out of it on Sunday.”

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Englishwoman Pippa Mann is racing in the pink at IMS in her ongoing bid to raise awareness of the consequences of breast cancer. Mann will start her sixth Indy 500 from the 28th position after qualifying at 225.008 mph in the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing.

Mann, a 33-year-old native of Ipswich, England, has logged 15 Verizon IndyCar Series starts since 2011, including two last year for DCR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. Mann finished a career-best 18th at IMS last May, only to struggle with her car’s setup this month.

“When we miss it by a little bit for me, we miss it by a country mile,” Mann said. “We came off a strong run last year and came back kind of expecting to roll into this and have a good week. We needed to go back to a car that responds to my input. (Last) Sunday we made that decision and my qualifying run was not fast but better than the day before.  You can never have enough time here, but it finally feels like it’s settling down.”

Mann said her Indy 500 program with the Komen organization has impact on several levels.

“First and foremost is that with the help of Dale Coyne Racing, we actually get to go out and make a statement at a time of the year that’s not October,” said Mann, referring to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “That’s something that the survivor community and co-survivor community and people who have lost loved ones have really gotten behind _ the fact we’re making this visible in a big way and it’s not October.

“The second thing is we actually use this race car to raise money for them (Komen Foundation). They are not a sponsor for the race team. They do not pay money to be on the race car. That is Dale Coyne Racing who helps us make that happen. My part in this is we run an online fund-raising campaign for them alongside the racing program.

“And we get race fans involved with that fund-raising program. They can come and spend Wednesday evening after the race with me at Sarah Fisher’s go-karting track, get signed photos, get signed 1/18-scale die-cast cars, bid on the helmet I’m about to wear in the race, they can bid on the suit I’m going to wear in the race. So we have all of these kinds of cool items available race fans can bid on or buy and get involved to raise money for Komen.” Mann said the program, in its fourth year, has raised “north of $175,000.”

Mann said there is a personal history of breast cancer in her family. “My aunt and my grandma both passed away from breast cancer,” Pippa said. “I was too young to have any idea what was going on with my grandma. When my aunt passed away I was actually living abroad to race go-karts. So when I came home my two older sisters grabbed me by the ear and walked me to a quiet corner and said, ‘Hey, this is the second time this has happened in our family. You really need to be aware of this.’

“When I came to the U.S. and saw sports teams doing much bigger things in support of charities _ and specifically from the Komen angle watching Sarah Fisher run the car in support of the program at Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of 2009 _ that really hit a chord with me that in the U.S. as athletes, you’re able to use that platform to do something.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 28 2017
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