INDIANAPOLIS — The second and final day of the NTT IndyCar Series Media Day is behind us. Following a ton of content that came out on the first day, here are my main takeaways from Day 2.
Max Chilton Explains Sports Psychologist, Adjusting As A Single Car Entry
Next month, Max Chilton will enter his sixth NTT IndyCar Series season already, the last four coming with Carlin. This one will be like the most recent ones in the sense that Chilton will race on just the road and street courses as well as the Indy 500. With that said, 2020 was met with some challenges too. First, there was a pandemic. Second, Carlin was a single car team. He had no teammate to bounce data points off of and it showed. They were the only ones in the paddock doing this venture and with COVID being around as well as an Aeroscreen, it was met with a huge learning curve.
On top of that, Chilton notes that they’re up against teams like Ganassi, Penske and Andretti who’ve been doing this for the last several decades and have a large difference in budgets in comparison to Carlin. It’s tough to close that gap with a smaller budget and without a team car. In turn, they’re behind from where he thought that they’d be heading into their fourth year.
“It’s really exciting to be back with Carlin,” Chilton said on Friday morning. “This is our fourth year. I know I say it every year, but I do think we’ve learnt a lot last year. Last year was a huge challenge, probably more challenging than our first year if I’m honest because it was our first year of just running as a single-car entry.
“Also the way the world was, we got very little testing and everything logistically and organizational wise was a challenge. I think we’ve done a great job considering and we’ve done more of a development program over this winter than any of the other previous.”
In saying that, Chilton also says on the flipside of the coin that being a single car team has its advantages too. It’s not all a negative as much as it sounds it could be.
“There are plenty of benefits by having a single-car team that some people aren’t aware of,” he said. “You can very much — the benefits of multiple-car teams or multiple cars is obviously you can file through some issues and go, Yep, that’s the direction, let’s go down there, and you’ve also got driver data overlays. So they’re the benefits.
“The downside is every time you add a car to a team they become less efficient. People’s minds are split between two, three, four, five. When it starts just getting dangerous is where you can’t focus on what needs to be done.
“So with a single-car team, the setup is purely focused on what I want. And at the end of the day the best setup, even if it’s the worst setup, is what I want. If I’m happy with it, that’s when the driver will be the quickest. Everything is focused around myself, which is a benefit. Everything is super efficient.
“Yes, you have to have technically more people employed than you would need to for two because you can’t just split everything. That bit isn’t perfect. But whenever there’s a problem, it gets resolved I think really, really quick.
“There’s also other ways between engine manufacturers that you can look at data. So I’ve got data. It’s not like I’m not looking at anyone else’s data, so that helps. I’ve been a single car before, and it kind of works for me.
“I know there’s people on the grid that think it has its downsides, and for sure I know it has its downsides. But does it mean you can’t do well? I disagree. I think you can definitely get some good results being a single-car team, especially with a team like Carlin that have great engineering behind it and they know how to extract the most out of the driver.”
Chilton, 29, is confident though that his No. 59 Chevrolet has improved over a year ago. His best races occurred as the season wore on. His three best results in 2020 came over the final four races. Not only is he confident in his car, he’s confident in himself. He made some changes in his off track regimen that he feels should boost him even further.
“I am confident that the car has improved. I’m also confident that I’ve improved in myself,” Chilton said. “I’ve taken on a sports psychologist, I have started doing weekly simulator sessions, changed my training a little bit, just to try and stir things up and see if it helps because there’s just as much time in myself, the driver, as there is the team.
“Hopefully those two things combined we can regularly get into the top 10 and hopefully once you are regularly in the top 10, you get the odd podium. It’s just at the moment we’ve struggled to get those regular top 10s. We’re looking forward to going into this year with a bit more confidence.”
The sports phycologist isn’t new for him though. It’s just a new person that he’s hired. This is an approach that Chilton said isn’t new in the paddock as he feels a lot of drivers use this as a benefit, they just don’t talk about it.
“It’s new for this year as in the person that I’m using,” Chilton continued. “I have used a sports psychologist for five or six years. I did have a year off, but I’ve changed the person now, and I’m getting on with them really well.
“They’ve got a great proven track record. She also works with Jack Harvey, so I know Jack has made some good gains in the last couple of years.”
Chilton said that the gains to really close the gap to the front is honestly in preparation and having a psychologist can help that dramatically.
“It’s nice to just have a different approach to it than I’ve had before,” he said. “We’ll see. A lot of it’s about preparation. I’ve always known it’s about preparation. We’re doing more simulator sessions. I’ve now got a new engineer this year called Luke Mason. He was my strategist last year and he now hosts the simulator sessions. And he’s actually a very keen sim racer himself. We can practice against each other, which I think is just practice and seat time.
“It’s not necessarily going, You’re the best and you’re just going to go out and do better because let’s face it, you’re not going to go out and do better because you think you’re better than you are.
“It’s all about getting fitter, better nutrition, about organizing your engineers to have more communication so you can then push the team forward more. And then by doing those things, the simulator sessions going better, the training going better, you then start to believe in yourself more, which then changes the on-track experience.
“It’s not very much like, Look into my eyes and you’re the world’s greatest. That’s a very old-fashioned look at sports psychology.
“I’ve been in it for 20 years and I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to say you become a little bit complacent thinking you know what you need to do and you actually end up not doing what you not need to do because you’ve done it so many times before. But you look at these young kids that have just started off in the series and they’re doing everything to try and improve.
“It happens just in everyday life. As you get older you become a little bit complacent. It’s just checking in with what you should be doing compared to what you have been doing and moving forward.
“I think we’re now talking more communication-wise between myself and my engineer, and we’re practicing more, which hopefully that leads us in a better stead going into the season.”
Chilton said that he doesn’t know what this isn’t talked about more though. From what he’s learned and speaking to people, most drivers on the grid have a sports psychologist Chilton says.
“I don’t know why it’s not more open, but I’ve always been open book about it.”
Chilton notes a technique that he uses is all visualization. It’s all about keeping your mind on the track.
“Even when I was in F1 I remember doing — we always on a Thursday did a press conference with five other drivers, and I mentioned that I did visualization. So when I was having like a massage before getting in the car, my masseuse, who was also my PT, would start a stopwatch and I would have to visualize a lap, then I would say ‘stop’ and look at the time and see how close we are.
“Sometimes, not every time, regularly I was within the second, but sometimes I’d get it within the same tenth of a second that I’d then go out and qualify.
“That stuff, that’s what it’s all about. Preparation is everything. But yeah, there’s definitely other drivers on the grid using them for sure, and it’s just part of being an athlete.”
VeeKay/Palou Looking To Grow In Year 2
Rinus VeeKay edged out Alex Palou for the Rookie of the Year Honors in the NTT IndyCar Series a year ago. Now, both are back as sophomores for 2021. But, while VeeKay remains with Ed Carpenter Racing for another go of it, Palou shifts from Dale Coyne Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing. One would think that Palou should have the better season with having what most would consider a better car.
Each want that first win. Each want to be improved. Each know that the chance of winning only heightens from last year to this.
“I don’t think it’s the expectations,” Palou said. “I don’t think that in the sport world we have to have expectations. I don’t like to have expectations. I like to have targets. I think it’s better to have the target to be winning and not to have the expectation to be winning because we are like 25 drivers. Everybody wants to be winning and everybody would expect to be winning.
“Yeah, the target is to win some races, to fight for the championship. We know we have the resources. We know that we have all the engineers, all the mechanics, the crew chief. We know we have the car. We know we have the sponsors. And we know we have everything to win. Now it’s all up to us.
“I think this year there’s, like, 12 drivers that are in the same position, with really good cars, some experience and with the hunger to win. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll try to make it.”
Palou, says the move to CGR is all that he’s ever wanted. He’s just wanted to be in a position to be part of a winning team, a historical team, and to be in the No. 10 is just amazing to him. He cites that the car has so much history behind it, so many like races and championships. It’s amazing to be a part of us.
With that then comes pressure. Now that you have a top ride, it’s time to win. Remember, he’s just in his second season. He says that having the rookie season behind him in learning the tracks was big, but the time is to win now.
Does the pressure get to him? He says it’s actually the opposite.
“That pressure has been with me since I was six years old and I started racing in go-karts. That pressure of winning, you have it every year. It’s not changing now. I feel less pressure now. I have the car to do it. I have the people to do it. It’s not the pressure of doing something crazy.
“The guy I’m going to race with, Scott Dixon, he won four races last year. They are giving me the resources to do it, so it’s up to me.
“The pressure of winning, that’s racing, and you have to win to be able to race another year. That’s been always with me, and it doesn’t change this year. If so, it makes it a bit easier just because it’s the first time in my life that I am in a big team.
“I think it’s the opportunity that you search since you start on karting,” said the Spaniard. “But then when you move up, that’s the dream. That’s the biggest dream. It’s amazing to have the opportunity this early.
“I think having a rookie year, that’s going to help a lot personally, mainly because I don’t have to worry like the basic things about how is the weekend schedule, like what do we have to do during a weekend, what’s the new tracks I have to be. I’m still going to have some new tracks to learn, but there’s going to be less than in 2020 for sure.
“I just think I’m a bit more prepared for sure. I have a better car. I have better data because now I have three teammates. Last year I had only one, so I have more information. One of them is a six-time INDYCAR champion, the other is a seven-time NASCAR champion, and then there’s Marcus and Tony, as well, depending on the race.
“Yeah, I think I have everything ready and set to have a good year.”
For VeeKay, his season is all about continuity. He has the same car, the same teammates, the same boss. His second year in INDYCAR is about improving from his first.
“I’m a whole different driver now,” said the Dutch driver. “Of course I only had Road to Indy experience before my rookie season started, but now I have I think it’s 14 INDYCAR races under my belt.
“Yeah, it’s something I’m very happy with and I can really — I could already see last season that throughout the season I made so much progress. Yeah, I think we had a very steep learning curve last year, and my job is to make sure that steep learning curve keeps staying as steep as it is now throughout the season.”
As to that progress? What changes did he notice that he had to make between seasons?
“Well, I found out that finishing a race is quite important, so I will always race as hard as I can, as fair as I can,” said VeeKay. “But definitely don’t take any risk, any unnecessary risk.
“Beginning of the season I was just really aggressive. Came away with it a few times, but also in Texas it was just too much. I definitely learned a lot from those races, and yeah, it made me a complete driver.
“I think now, yeah, I’ll have to make sure I keep it all going, and yeah, finish as well as possible every race.”
VeeKay, says that another aspect that he could be better is just his commitment levels. You don’t know what you don’t know as a rookie. Now that he’s experienced it, he says that he can give more to this season.
“Well, I think of course full commitment. It’s not just something that you’re driving INDYCAR. You just really have to give it everything, in your personal life, but in any way possible.
“Coming into the race weekends, it’s not just another race weekend. We’ve got to make sure I’m fully prepared. I know everything that the engineers know from past years, even though I’ve maybe done no races on that track. But there’s data from before.”
He says that his advisor, Arie Luyendyk Sr., noticed that the aggression level could be tempered down too.
“Well, being a little too aggressive on an oval,” VeeKay said on what Luyendyk has told him. “It’s basically always that because he’s the king at that. And yeah, just little things that — little tricks that save you a lot of time on ovals, like with setting up the car and feeling what’s the car going to do, because you don’t have a lot of time when you’re coming to the race. And obviously setup is so important. If you can really maximize that time, yeah, it’s super valuable.”
His owner Ed Carpenter, said that VeeKay has grown a lot since that aggression got the best of him in Texas.
“You never know fully what to expect,” Carpenter said of getting a rookie driver. “Based on what we had seen with his talent and ability prior to Texas, I was fairly confident in where his potential was.
“That’s what was so frustrating about Texas for a lot of reasons. We had talked about a lot of things, and that definitely didn’t go to plan. The best part about that was I had my public reaction, which was actually better than my private reaction to Rinus. But his ability to respond, to realize his mistakes, have ownership of his mistakes and move forward, I think you saw him get stronger and stronger as the season went on.
“He’s still 20. He’s got a lot to learn. He knows that. But he works extremely hard on the track, off the track, and I have no doubt we’re going to continue to see his ability to show his talents on a more consistent basis. Hopefully we’ll be winning races together soon.
“I think coming in last year as a rookie, as prepared as you are, it’s still always a giant jump from Lights to INDYCAR. He had been to a lot of the tracks, hadn’t been to a lot of the tracks, getting to know the team. The cars are more complicated. There’s a lot more things that we can do to these cars than anything he’s ever driven. A lot of that first year is just learning to communicate and for him to speak our language within the team.
“All of that he’s comfortable with now. He’s been involved in knowing what we’re developing and what we’re trying to accomplish with areas of improvement as a team and for him personally, having had a season to evaluate all those things for him.
“I think that’s natural as you develop as a driver, to have some more command. That comes with being comfortable in your own environment and just understanding the flow of the season and what we’re trying to do.
“He’s definitely showing growth. That’s great. There’s still a long ways to go. Hopefully we’ll have a successful year.”
VeeKay hopes that he can be a frontrunner regularly in 2021 too. He hopes that he can be one of the favorites every race. The goal is a consistent top five contender.
“Once you’re in that position, I think there will — in those 17 races, there will be an opportunity where you can go for that race win where everything goes your way,” continued VeeKay. “We just have to make sure we have the pace. I know we’ve got the strategies, and just me being the driver I am that got a podium in Indy, and yeah, well, the driver I was last year.
“I think if I just keep doing what I’m doing and have the team keep putting in the work that they did in the off-season, I think we can really run at the front, and yeah, hopefully go for podiums.
“Hopefully that first win, that’s something I really want to go for. We’ll see how that goes. But yeah, I’m fully committed for the season.”
10th Season For Ed Carpenter Racing
Ed Carpenter is celebrating a birthday this week. But, he’s got another birthday celebration coming up next month too. When the series heads to the Barber Motorsports Park for the season opener in April, it will mark the 10th year that Ed Carpenter Racing has been around. A lot has changed since Carpenter started this venture for the 2012 season. While it started off small, Carpenter hopes that this team will last at least another decade in this sport.
“I’d love to be around for another 10 years,” he told me on Friday. “It’s crazy how fast it’s gone. It doesn’t seem like we’ve been here 10 years.
“I love what we’re doing. We’ve got a great group of people, a lot of which have been with the team for the whole 10 years, which is something I’m very proud of. Looking forward to — it’s been too long since we’ve won a race together. Really looking forward to celebrating some wins this year and just continuing to establish ourselves as a team everyone has got to worry about in the series.”
Carpenter, says that while 10 years is obviously an accomplishment, it’s not been an easy road either.
“It’s definitely not an easy industry to have your core business in,” Carpenter said on some of the challenges of being a driver-owner in this sport. “It’s very volatile, especially in a year like we just went through. Can’t wait to have a year that feels a little more normal and put more of the enjoyment back in and have some fan interaction and worry about things like that more so than where we’re going to be able to go, when we’re going to get there and who we’re allowed to bring, things like that.
“It’s not an easy — it’s not the easiest of lives making sure we can keep all the people employed and keep the racecars on track, but we’re definitely doing what we love to do.”
This season, ECR will finally have some continuity. This is the first time since the team expanded to two full-time cars that all three drivers are back.
See, when it would be maybe Carpenter and a road/street course driver returning to the seat of the No. 20 Chevrolet, a new driver would come into the fold for the No. 21 Chevrolet. If a driver returned to the 21, Carpenter had a new specialist for the 20.
This year, he and Conor Daly share the 20 seat again while Rinus VeeKay is back in the 21.
“It’s nice,” Carpenter said of the same team this year as last. “I mean, it’s the first time really in a long time where we haven’t had any driver turnover. Maybe ever. Within the team itself there wasn’t a whole lot of change, either. A couple changes, but those were all, I think, for the positive. And I think we’re seeing that already in the short amount of time we’ve been on track.
“It’s exciting. Continuity is important, when you have the right group, and we feel like we have that. I think we believe in both guys. They’re both highly talented and have a lot of untapped potential still.
“It’s hard when you’re changing even just one driver because it takes time to get them integrated with the team, for us to understand them, them to understand us, because every driver is different, they like different things, communicate different ways.
“Having had that learning, I think we can do a better job for them as a team versus having to reset and kind of establish that relationship with someone else again. It allows the two drivers to work closer together just because they’ve had a year together and know what each other is good at. They know what the other is working on to be better. It’s all positives.”
Carpenter says that expectations he believes the performance is now there in the cars. They weren’t last year.
He says that he feels 2020 was definitely a building year. They had both highs and lows.
“Really since Josef had left for Penske, we’ve been kind of searching for someone that we believe can be a consistent race-winning driver and championship contender,” Carpenter continued. “We feel like we have those drivers in the equation now, and that’s exciting.
“Last year was a building year, and the expectation is always to win, but I think the expectations are a little more high this year than they probably were last year just having less unknowns.
“I definitely think we have that performance there.
“I think for my expectation, I do think that we can achieve those things, it’s just a matter of being consistent. That’s really what separates out Josefs and Scotts from everyone else right now, is just the consistency that’s required to stay at the top of the championship.
“That’s as much what I’m focused on is the ultimate performance because I know we have that potential, it’s just unlocking it week to week.”
Pagenaud Eyeing Improved Year
2020 wasn’t a good season for Simon Pagenaud. He’ll tell you that. Just one trip to victory lane and an eighth place finish in the final standings. While last year can sort of be classified as a throw away year in terms of changes made to the car, COVID being around and not much on track time, Pagenaud knows that he can’t afford to have another season in this one last the last.
“I’ve been grinding, let me tell you,” said the Frenchman. “It’s been a very interesting winter. I’ve worked on more details than I’ve ever worked before, which is great. And with more and more data, technology, you can really dig deep and just perfect your craft even better than in the past.
“Obviously Team Penske has been able to provide me all the information I needed to get ready for the season, so personally I feel like I’ve really worked really well.
“A lot of the time was going through every single practice and qualifying and race and trying to understand how to gain time in every single thing that you do as a driver. There’s a lot of people around me, of course, that takes care of the race car, the pit stops and so on and so forth, but there are a lot of things that you do as a driver that you can’t just let it aside. I can’t say the details because I don’t want to give any hint to the other drivers. I will write a book after racing.
“But I did go in very fine details, more than I ever have. I believe it will give me the edge on some things, and I believe it will allow my performance to go up in general.
“2020 was interesting. Honestly it’s a combination of things that didn’t work out the way I wanted. Obviously the car change made a big difference. The lack of testing made a big impact on my season. Yeah, we ended up where we did. Not happy about it, so it gave me even more desire to do well for 2021.
“I feel very ready for the season and very excited. Like I said, I’m a grinder. I’ve been working hard, and I’m ready for the challenge.”
Think about what he just said. He is essentially taking an inventory of his entire race craft and making adjustments. This is a former series champion. A driver that has won the Indy 500. His place in INDYCAR history is secured. Pagenaud is one of the best we’ve seen. Even he is altering is race craft now.
That’s just how difficult it is to compete for wins and championships in this series. It’s just so damn tough. That’s a good thing for us, but causes restless nights and constant preparation for the drivers on and off the track. A driver of Pagenaud’s caliber isn’t spared.
“It’s very competitive right now, and I think every team has a good handle on the race car, as well, which makes it even tougher because the cars are so similar,” Pagenaud said of this field this year. “There’s no margin for error.
“Even though we have paddle shift, even your upshift points is very important in qualifying. You miss it by five-hundredths of a second, you might miss the Fast Six and find yourself starting in 12th position, which is crazy. Changes your whole weekend.
“If you look at Rinus, if you look at Pato, if you look at Colton Herta, if you look at Scott McLaughlin now, he’s going to be stellar. You look at Romain Grosjean coming in. Obviously all these guys are expert in what they do, and it’s going to be a very interesting season.
“The field is stacked. It’s incredible.”
Will these changes work now? He obviously hopes so. He can’t wait to show them off next month in Barber. He’s even more excited to show the improvements at Indy too.
“Obviously number one priority for me is the 500, trying to get a second ring,” said Pagenaud. “Obviously like I did in ’19, we got so close to winning the championship, as well. Well, we’re going to try to do it this year. The team, on their side, they’ve been working really hard. Gaining speed for the Speedway mostly was number one for them as well. Lately there’s been a huge push on the road course and street course, and I feel like we’re gelling really well as a team with my teammates and everybody on the team. It’s a pretty exciting time.”
Is this a contract year for Pagenaud? It is for Will Power. Pagenaud, doesn’t see the need to discuss that but says just let the action on track do the talking for him.
“My personal opinion is just go out there and do the best you can, race hard and be in the moment,” Pagenaud said of the topic. “The contracts will take care of themselves when they do.
“It’s too early to tell anyway. But yeah, I always race as hard as I can. My motto is having no regrets ever, so I work hard, and I want to have no regrets. So if I have no regrets, there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.”
Pato O’Ward Confident In Strong Season For 2021
Pato O’Ward was a pleasant surprise for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. We all knew his skill. That wasn’t ever in question. What was tough to see was that O’Ward would be a championship contender despite being in basically his rookie year, with a rookie teammate on a rookie team.
To have finished fourth in the final standing and to have been as close as he was to actually winning, that even somewhat surprised O’Ward too.
“We set a bar very high last year. I agree,” he said on Friday. “I looked back and I said, That’s a mega year. My first full year in INDYCAR and I even exceeded my expectations. But that put a very high bar, and now we want to make that better.”
O’Ward said that backing up last year’s success with improvement is going to be ridiculously hard. But he thinks if they just take everything step by step and everyone does their job, minimize mistakes, then they should be in the fight in the end.
“I think it’s hard to put expectations, certain expectations down, but I think it’s nothing hidden. We want to win races,” O’Ward said. “We want to win races. We want to be consistently fighting for podiums, and we want to be there. We want to be contenders every single race weekend.
“I think in doing so, that’ll put us in a position at the end of the year to fight for the championship. That is the goal. I want to get to Long Beach having a possibility to win the championship. That’s why we do this, man. We do this to win races, win championships. The team has been working really, really hard to just make everything that we had last year better.
“Me as a driver, I’m just trying to do everything I can to be better physically, mentally, preparation-wise, honestly anything I can do that will make my life and the team’s life easier at the race weekend, I’m all for it.”
As to how he’s going to improve between 2020 and 2021, O’Ward said that he spent a lot of time rewatching how he lost races a year ago. Ask any successful racer, it’s the losses that are remembered more than the wins. In doing so, a few things stood out. Mix that with areas to where they can improve themselves and you get what should be a race win on the horizon for the No. 5 Chevrolet.
“I rewatched every race where we were in contention, both Iowa races, both Gateway races, Road America. Just from things that I learned last year, you qualify up front, you make your life so much easier,” he said.
“Another thing is that pit stops are huge in INDYCAR racing. I lost a lot of my race wins because we didn’t execute in the pits, and that’s huge. I feel like our pace was very, very strong. I think we were very strong in many places that we went to all year.
“But where we need to push this year, and we may need to make sure if we have a mistake it has to be minimized, is in the pits, and me as a driver just do my job. I know that if we can accomplish that, we will get race wins because if the pace is there, just like last year but maybe even a little bit better, qualifying further up front should make it easier on us, every single pit stop, execute, execute, execute. I think that’s what’s going to make us be in contention by the end of the year.
“Last year getting to St. Pete, I think second was the best we could have done. But we want to get to Long Beach knowing that there is a possibility of being able to win the championship. That is the goal.”
O’Ward, notes that he hopes the lowest point of his career is last season. They always want to strive to be better, so why have goals to go backwards. He says last year was a lot of unfinished business.
They were close to winning four races. He says there were tough pills to swallow, and feels like that left everyone in the team is so hungry as a result.
“I can see it from the off-season, just how much work has been put into the development of trying to make the cars go faster at the speedway and road courses,” he continued. “Me as a driver, I truly don’t think I’ve ever been fitter, more ready to try and win the thing. I have lots of faith in the team. I have lots of faith in what we can accomplish as a group. It’s going to be ridiculously hard, but it is possible.
“I have lots of faith that we can make some great stuff happen this year.”
O’Ward says while having lofty expectations against a field of this quality could bring massive pressure, but he doesn’t look at it that way. He says these goals don’t add pressure at all.
He goes into every year thinking that this is the time to do it. You have to he says.
“I mean, at least this is how I approach it. You have to approach every single weekend, whether you’re racing with Scott Dixon or Lewis Hamilton, you have to get there every race weekend and you have to believe as a group, not as a driver but as a group, that you can beat them. You have to believe that you can beat the best. If not, you’re always going to be a step behind, and you don’t want to be a step behind. You want to compete against them.
“I think this year we just have to take everything step by step and not get ahead of ourselves. But I think if we follow our mentality of what we did last year, be consistent and just all the results, just one-up them, every single place, that should put us in very good position.”
Dixon Eyeing Repeat Championship
Scott Dixon is running out of goals. What more does a guy with six NTT IndyCar Series championships and 50 career wins have left to accomplish? Well for Dixon, he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Hanging it up isn’t on his radar yet.
“You know, I don’t think you can ever really put a time scale on it or an age or anything like that,” said the defending series champion. “I think everybody is pretty unique and pretty different. If anything, I think we’ve seen the longevity, not just in our sport but across sports in general. There’s so many different ways, whether it’s the mental game or training or anything like that.
“The thing I love about the INDYCAR Series is that it’s not really a constant — well, it is a constant. It’s constantly changing, whether it’s the track venues to the style of the car or updates like the aeroscreen for safety and things like that that do change the challenge of what we have at hand for a driver or for the engineering group, as well.
“I don’t know, I think it probably comes down to when you’re not enjoying it. I love the sport more than anything at the moment. I feel very lucky, I feel very privileged to be able to do what I do and especially with the group of people that I get to work with. Probably the most inspiring part of it is when you walk through the doors at Chip Ganassi Racing, the competition level or the competitiveness that you feel in that environment, it’s pretty intense. I think that’s definitely one that drives me.
“And then you look at the competitiveness of the field is insane. The will of wanting to try and win and then keep that winning situation, it tugs at you pretty hard.”
Dixon said his ultimate goal for this year outside of the obvious, an Indy 500 triumph, would be to repeat as a champion. Out of his six titles (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2020) none of which have come in consecutive years. Why not do something for the first time of his career?
“Yeah, it would be amazing. Seven sounds a lot better than six, so why not? I’ve never been able to repeat, so that’s goal number one, is to go back-to-back,” said Dixon.
“It’s always tough. I think even to win the last two out of three has been pretty exceptional for our team, and it’s been fantastic for PNC and welcoming them to the sport and onboard the 9.
“I don’t know, you’ve got to take it step by step. It’s easy to come in and say, Yeah, we’re going to repeat, we want to repeat, we want to win a seventh championship. But trying to secure that is something totally different.
To me it would mean everything to me to be able to do that. I think even to get the sixth was — in the current landscape is extremely tough and very difficult to do. Very proud of that. The obvious goal is to add to that. That will be what we’re trying to do.”
Dixon says that the talent level has drastically changed over the years. Not just on the driver side, but the team side too. He thinks with the current formula, the equality between the small team and big team, there is no small team anymore the way the rules play. There’s not much that a big team can out-spend anybody on anymore.
“I’d say the competition, I’ve never seen it so strong,” he said. “I think when you look at it from a driver standpoint to a team standpoint and the options that you have, it’s pretty packed, man. I think it’s as strong as ever. And the talent that you’re getting is maybe the best that we’ve seen in the last 10 years or so.”
To make that competition scared though, Dixon found areas to which he can still improve upon too.
“I think we’ve found some better understanding of maybe the process of — it was kind of weird, I think ’19 we maybe had the best average of the field for qualifying position, and then ’20 was a pretty rough year, especially for road course I think for our team as a whole,” said Dixon. “Street course was okay, ovals were pretty good, with the exception I think of Iowa where we had a problem.
“We have some ideas. I think the problem that we’ve faced I think in recent years is when you do this testing, especially in winter months, the tracks are very cold and the conditions are extremely different to what you get to. And what at least we’ve found is that the tires are quite sensitive even just to ambient conditions or UV on the track.
“You think you have a process, but we probably won’t understand it until we get into a few races and see if we can rectify it. Personally I think there’s definitely some things I needed to change and apply differently, which I’m pretty cognizant of that and have tried to apply that I think to some of our testing thus far, even though we’ve only had two or three days.
“It’ll be a season-long process, I think, trying to get to that point and knowing if we can fix it.”
Rebound Year For Rossi
Alexander Rossi didn’t mince words on Friday. “I just think we sucked globally,” he said of the 2020 season. “Like there wasn’t anything we were doing right, whether it was qualifying performance, whether it was race performance, pit stops, my driving. None of it was good.
“Last year just sucked. It sucked on track, it sucked off track. It was a terrible year for everyone except for Scott and Takuma, so good for them.
“Ultimately I’m just thrilled that we have the opportunity to get back to racing, that the calendar is what it is, that the continuity on the 27 team is what it is. I think everyone is pushing really, really hard to make sure that there’s no repeats of last year, and we’ll just let the on track do the rest of the talking.”
It’s no secret, the first nine races of the 2020 season were dismal for Andretti Autosport overall. Combined, they had just six top five finishes and one podium between them. Four of the six top fives belonged to Colton Herta. Rossi’s third place effort in Road America 2 was their lone podium through Aug. 30. That was where shit hit the fan.
Rossi, says rock bottom hit at Indy last year. That was the point to where changes had to be made. I mean, you look at how strong they were all month. They had five of the top nine starters. In the end, none of them even finished in the top five.
“I think Indianapolis was quite an eye opener for everyone in terms of how fast all the Andretti Autosport cars, and to come away with really nothing was not good. It wasn’t a good Monday,” he said.
As the season went on, progress came. Once we got to Mid-Ohio though in September, everything had since changed. Herta scored a win in the second race of the weekend and was ninth in the other. Rossi, had dual podiums with Hunter-Reay being fifth and third respectively himself to give AA a 1-2-3 effort in Race 2.
At Indy, it was more strength. Herta was fourth and second respectively and Rossi second and third himself.
One podium in nine races followed by seven in four races after. St. Pete was looking good until the final laps. Hinchcliffe, Herta and Rossi were all battling for podiums. Then all hell broke loose.
Still, the momentum shifted from Mid-Ohio on. How do they build on that for 2021?
“I think that the last kind of 20 percent of last year, things had turned a corner and we had identified a lot of issues and had a lot of tough conversations and made some changes, so I think we went into the off-season with quite a bit of optimism, and we’ve continued that progression all the way through the winter,” Rossi said.
“The team is in a really strong place right now, so I’m excited to get down to Barber. The tests that we have had have gone smoothly, and we’ve done a lot of — we’ve accomplished a lot of what we’ve been trying to do. So we’ve got a couple more times in the car before Barber, but yeah, I feel good right now.”
Some difficult decisions had to be made Rossi said though.
“We just all were honest with each other, and we all kind of discussed things that were good and things that were not good, and we took 2020 as an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. I think there’s an advantage and so many positives we can take out of it, and like I said, I think the end of the year went really well for us for the most part, minus St. Pete, which is on me.
“I’m not going to get into the details of it because it’s not necessary, but I think we’re operating at a really high level right now, and I’m excited to get on track in Barber.”
Rossi says that he thinks the biggest thing that hurt them at the beginning of last year was really the reduced track time going into the actual qualifying/races.
“I think if you look back at 2018-2019, we were never great on Fridays, and we would kind of do a lot of work Friday night and come back Saturday for final practice and be there and qualify up front and the rest was kind of history.
“When you have that many cars and it’s such a condensed one-hour practice with a two-hour break, into qualifying, you can’t use the advantage of all those cars. Like it’s not possible. You don’t have enough people and enough time to go through that amount of information and make educated decisions. I think once we got our kind of off-line correlation and our deltas right with the aeroscreen and the effect that it had on the car, I think once we kind of got that in line with the on-track reality — the other thing is when COVID happens, all the wind tunnel, the shaker rig, the simulator time, it all disappeared.
“We didn’t have any tools available to us to kind of figure out what our problems were, address them and solve them. We had to do it all on track. I think that’s a lot of what you saw the first half, the first 70 percent, 60 percent of last year.
“I think the one big thing that we wanted to accomplish in preseason testing this year was making sure that our offline simulation was correlating to the on-track stuff, and we did a lot of really cool things this winter. Honda and HPD have played a pretty big role in that, and we’ve progressed forward quite a lot.
“Like I said, I think the team is operating at a level that they haven’t before. I’m more motivated than ever, and yeah, I think it’s all — everything is lining up as it should. We just have to go out and do it now.”