Competition runs strong and deep at Phoenix Raceway open test
AVONDALE, Ariz. (Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017) – Two days of on-track testing for 21 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and teams were literally like day and night.
Cars carrying Chevrolet engines and aero kits dominated the day sessions of the Phoenix Raceway open test, while those with Honda equipment filled the top of the leaderboard for the night practices. So, following 12 on-track hours and more than 5,000 laps run on the 1.022-mile oval, the competition for the upcoming 17-race season may be as tight as ever. That’s saying something since the last 11 season championships have been decided at the final race.
PHOENIX RACEWAY OPEN TEST RESULTS: Practice 3; Practice 4; Combined results
JR Hildebrand, who returns to a full-season ride this year with Ed Carpenter Racing, claimed the honor of best lap of the weekend at 193.234 mph (19.0401 seconds) in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. The lap came early in this afternoon’s session and was better than the track record established last year by Helio Castroneves. Hildebrand’s lap is not considered an official record because it did not take place during qualifications or the race.
“We’d certainly rather be quick than not and we felt good about the laps we’ve been putting in,” Hildebrand said at the time. “We were running at a really good time of day. The conditions tailed off a little after we ran our time. We went back out later trying to go even quicker and had a little bit of a moment.”
Hildebrand had a bigger moment in tonight’s final practice, crashing into the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier with less than 30 minutes remaining in the three-hour session. It was one of five incidents on the day, though no drivers were injured.
“(I) just clipped Will (Power) with the right front wing on his left rear pod and it must have just torn off part of the front wing,” Hildebrand explained. “I bent it into Turn 3 and was being cautious with it, but I just picked up huge understeer from not having part of the front wing. Couldn’t really avoid getting to the outside wall there, tried to hit the brakes to slow down and it just turned me straight into the inside wall on the front straightaway.”
Ed Carpenter, Hildebrand’s teammate and boss, had the second-best overall lap of the weekend at 192.404 mph in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, also logged in today’s afternoon practice. The top five spots in the daytime session were filled by Chevy cars, a day after the bowtie brigade held the top four spots.
Tonight’s final practice – when cars were fitted into race trim – saw five Honda entries at the top. Ryan Hunter-Reay set the pace in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport at 189.716 mph. Sebastien Bourdais was second tonight in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda at 189.495 mph. Honda cars claimed the first six positions on the speed chart in Friday’s night practice.
“The team did a really good job and we got a lot of really good information,” said Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion who finished in the top 10 of all four open test practices. “Picking a downforce level will be critical when we come back (for the race). It’s going to be a ton hotter than it is now. We’re just going have to think long and hard about it and see what we come up with. It’s definitely not representative now, especially in the night session, of what we’re going to be facing in April. Hopefully, we have what we need.”
In addition to Hildebrand, today’s on-track incidents involved Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden and Bourdais.
Less than five minutes into the afternoon session, Rossi – last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner and Sunoco Rookie of the Year for both that historic race and the entire Verizon IndyCar Series season – spun in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian and backed into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
“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. 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.”
Thirty minutes into the evening session, Rahal had a similar spin and impact in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.
“The thing was building understeer up until that point and, once I got close to (Newgarden), the rear just went,” Rahal said. “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.”
With just more than an hour remaining in the night practice, Sato spun and backed into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
“We were doing a (run) in qualifying trim, and it looks like we just lost the rear on the second lap,” Sato said. “We need to investigate it, but it looks like we were too light on downforce.”
With 30 minutes left in the night practice, Newgarden’s No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet made light contact with Bourdais as they battled into Turn 1. Both cars continued after touching and returned to pit lane.
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 12 (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). The Phoenix Grand Prix is the fourth race of the season on April 29 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
Castroneves digs chance to assist Phoenix project groundbreaking
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves earned Phoenix Raceway’s “Speed King” moniker and a real crown last year when he won the Phoenix Grand Prix’s pole position by officially setting the track record on the historic 1.022-mile oval with a stunning lap of 192.631 mph and two-lap average of 192.324.
Today, the Brazilian broke new ground. Literally.
Castroneves traded his No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet for a different kind of machine prior to the final day of the two-day Verizon IndyCar Series open test – an excavator.
Castroneves was asked to officially break ground for the “Phoenix Raceway Project powered by DC Solar,” a $178 million modernization for the facility that hosts the Verizon IndyCar Series race. He joined Bryan Sperber, the Phoenix Raceway president, and Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, as well as other dignitaries including 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva for the ceremony outside Turn 2.
The Team Penske driver took controls of the excavator to do the honors of digging up the first shovelful of dirt.
“That was something,” said Castroneves. “It was the first time I was in one of those machines. Normally I’m told not to break things. This is the first time they are telling me to actually break things.”
Frye was honored that members of INDYCAR played a central role in the ceremony, making it part of the track’s Prix View day that allowed fans to attend track action and the groundbreaking free of charge.
“We’re certainly very proud to be part of it,” Frye said. “We’re very proud to be here and to be back here. It’s spectacular what they are doing to this facility. It’s already a great facility, a great setting, great area and great history. Now it’s going to have spectacular amenities, great for the fans, so it’s a really great time for us to be back.”
Late-night icon Leno takes wheel of Indy car
Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon took on driving instructor duties today, but his student was no ordinary novice.
Comedian and former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno was at Phoenix Raceway today, driving an Indy car under the watchful eyes of Dixon for an upcoming segment of “Jay Leno’s Garage” on CNBC. The episode slated for July airing will also include a segment taped two weeks ago when Leno went on a ride-along with Verizon IndyCar Series team co-owner Sam Schmidt in the Arrow semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM) Corvette that the quadriplegic Schmidt drives using breath, voice and head movements.
Following instructions this morning from Dixon in the Chip Ganassi Racing pit, Leno turned laps on the Phoenix Raceway oval in one of the INDYCAR Experience single-seaters – at speeds less than half the 190 mph or so that Dixon averages in his No. 9 Honda. Nevertheless, Leno – the self-described car fanatic – was thrilled with the experience.
“Really fun,” Leno said. “I’ve driven cars with more power but not that much grip. The level of grip in these is unbelievable. Doing road cars on an oval or something, you feel it start to slip, and this doesn’t move at all. It’s just planted. That’s the biggest difference, I think.”
Leno’s connection to Indy car racing is extended. He was the honorary pace car driver for the 1999 Indianapolis 500. He was treated to an Indy car two-seater ride two years ago at Auto Club Speedway with legend Mario Andretti at the wheel.
Dixon enjoyed the experience of working with the iconic television star.
“It’s great to see his passion for racing and how knowledgeable he was on the whole INDYCAR field and drivers and different eras,” Dixon said. “But it was also nice just to chat about different cars, about the new Ford GT and different things.
“He did a really good job (driving) and he’s not scared. He’s really laid back, relaxed. I think for a lot of people this would be a daunting experience, but he definitely took it in stride and really seemed to enjoy it.”
PRESS RELEASE WRITTEN BY & COURTESY OF INDYCAR COMMUNICATIONS