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IndyCar Jets Back Into Racing In ‘Cool Machines’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 6 2020

Josef Newgarden started Saturday night’s IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway from the pole.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Reigning Genesys 300 champion Josef Newgarden says racing an Indy car around Texas Motor Speedway is like watching jet planes in a gymnasium.

Wrap your COVID-19-weary brain around that.

“You’re watching these incredible pieces of art, these cool machines. They’re jet fighter planes, in my opinion, on the ground,” said Newgarden, anticipating Saturday night’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season-opener. “They’re flying around in close proximity and going to battle.”

Newgarden launched defense of his victory here last summer and his 2019 championship in style Saturday afternoon, qualifying on-pole with a two-lap average of 215.740 mph. A two-time series champion from Team Penske, Newgarden knocked five-time series champ Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing off the provisional pole as last driver to qualify on a high-banked/1.5-mile oval registering a temp of 131 degrees. 

“I don’t want to say I was surprised,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet. “It felt like the car was quick. I didn’t know if we had enough to beat Dixon; he looked really good in his qual trim. I felt the XPEL car was great. I just tried to do the best I could to stay flat. That’s just all I had to do was keep it pinned around the track. The car was perfect.”

Dixon will start second in his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda via a two-lap average of 215.638 mph. Earlier, last year’s No. 1 qualifier, Takuma Sato, crashed in Turn 1 on his warmup lap. Sato was checked and released from the Wise Health System infield media center despite extensive damage to the No. 30 ABeam Consulting Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. The team ultimately decided the car could not be repaired and pulled Sato from the field.

Sato’s crash put an exclamation point on the event’s pre-race concerns. In fact, the unique and potentially toxic mix of elements percolating under the Texas sun prompted 2016 TMS winner Graham Rahal to observe, “It’s kind of flying blind for most of us.”

Indeed, myriad concerns have been voiced by drivers during pre-event interviews, including:  racing for the first time with the Aeroscreen, INDYCAR’s latest safety innovation; Firestone’s choice of tire compounds for TMS’ treacherously fast oval; the rookie class of Oliver Askew, Alex Palou and Rinus VeeKay having to compete at TMS with limited practice and pit crews working in near-triple-digit race conditions for the first time since last September.

Onset of the COVID-19 virus has kept the open-wheel series on hold since March 13. “I think a lot of people are looking to racing and to sports to bring some normalcy back to life,” said Rahal, also of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “I’m excited. I’m nervous. I think everybody is nervous. If you’re not nervous, I’d be concerned about the head that you have on your shoulders.”

The 24 drivers entered in the scaled-down 200-lap/300-miler faced a condensed schedule of practice, qualifying and racing during a one-day program _ a first for TMS.

To the chagrin of TMS President/General Manager Eddie Gossage, the race will be run without fans in the massive grandstands _ a track and series first.

“I don’t recall in my career ever that I show up to a race that wasn’t a single person ask you to the autograph,” said 2004 TMS winner Tony Kanaan, who has extended his consecutive streak of race starts to a record 318 driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. “It is going to be really weird. I have no doubt that for me I don’t think it’s going to feel like a race weekend. It’s going to feel like a private test.” Kanaan, 45 and racing at TMS for the final time as part of a five-race, all-oval Last Lap Tour, qualified 10th in his No. 14 7-Eleven Chevrolet.

Overall enthusiasm expressed by drivers has been tempered by issues related to the Aeroscreen and Firestone’s tires. The Aeroscreen is a ballistic, canopy-like safety innovation on the cockpit designed to enhance driver protection; it has been mandated for use by all teams at all tracks this season.

Billed as “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race,” the Genesys 300’s green flag at 7:10 p.m. and a reduction of 48 laps meant most of the race would be run in daylight-to-twilight. Questions remained about glare with the Aeroscreen, especially through Turns 3 and 4 during the race’s opening stint.

I think the bigger question mark that we all have is how the Aeroscreen is going to play a factor in the heat,” said Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport, runnerup to Newgarden last June by 0.8164-seconds. “Obviously, Texas is a really hot race. It’s already pretty physically demanding. With the screen it’s going to be quite a bit hotter, so is it going to make that big of a difference or not? Again, we haven’t really tested so we don’t really know.”

Firestone Racing is supplying more than 1,100 Firehawk race tires, with each team receiving nine sets of primary rubber.

The pandemic prompted Firestone to temporarily shut down factory production of a new tire specification planned for TMS. Working from available inventory, the left-side tires here are race-proven from the 2019 Indianapolis 500 at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The right-side tires were designed and built as alternates for TMS last year and tested on-track in August with simulated effects of the Aeroscreen via added weight and increased center of gravity height.

Given those factors, IndyCar implemented a maximum run of 35 laps on each set of tires, subject to caution flags.

“It’s definitely going to be interesting to see how that plays out,” said Dixon, a three-time TMS winner. “The race is really changing from last year _we ran 65 laps on a stint to this year we’re limited now to 35, half-tanks (of fuel) in the car. It’s going to be a bit crazy in knowing what you should try to do in that short amount of time. We’ll put a lot of emphasis on pit stops, in-laps. Could create other issues.”

Those factors and the exclusion of fans played into NBC’s decision to broadcast the race in primetime. The Genesys 300 is the first INDYCAR race aired in primetime on NBC and first series race on broadcast TV in primetime since 2013.

Results of qualifying Saturday for the Genesys 300 NTT IndyCar Series event on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, engine, and speed:

1. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 215.740 mph
2. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 215.638 
3. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 215.464 
4. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 214.311 
5. (26) Zach Veach, Honda, 213.981 
6. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 213.930 
7. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 213.878 
8. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 213.689 
9. (10) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 213.560 
10. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 213.388 
11. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 213.190 
12. (4) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 212.780 
13. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 212.714 
14. (88) Colton Herta, Honda, 212.697 
15. (29) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 212.603 
16. (55) Alex Palou, Honda, 212.504 
17. (8) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 212.040 
18. (5) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 212.013 
19. (59) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 211.425 
20. (7) Oliver Askew, Chevrolet, 210.839 
21. (60) Jack Harvey, Honda, 205.647 
22. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, no speed
23. (21) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, no speed
24. (18) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, no speed

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 6 2020
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