Castroneves sets pace in Verizon IndyCar Series’ rapid return to Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (Feb. 27, 2016) – The Valley of the Sun welcomed the Verizon IndyCar Series back to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend. The teams and drivers responded with a very rapid thank you.

Competing en masse for the first time at the historic 1.022-mile oval since 2005, 21 drivers participated in the two-day promoter test that served as a preview for the upcoming Phoenix Grand Prix on April 2 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN). More than 5,300 laps were completed, with 18 drivers clocking times faster than the official track record set two decades ago by Indy car great Arie Luyendyk.

To view the combined session practice results, click here.

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud led the way. Castroneves, in the No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet, set the top lap of 19.2735 seconds (190.894 mph) in the climactic Feb. 27 evening session.

“We had a little issue with the Hitachi car in the first session, but were able to take full advantage of the second one,” said Castroneves, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and winner of the 2002 Phoenix Indy car race. “The car seemed to be very solid in qualifying trim and we were able to jump into race mode. It’s going to be fast and non-stop. The Phoenix fans are going to have a heck of a race.”

Pagenaud was fastest in the afternoon session and second overall for the four sessions, with a lap of 19.2884 seconds (190.747 mph). Both Penske drivers were more than three-tenths of a second under Luyendyk’s 1996 record lap of 19.608 seconds (183.599 mph). Official Indy car records can only be set during qualifying and the race.

“We’ve been doing race stuff all day and the times have improved, so I feel very comfortable in every condition now,” said Pagenaud, starting his second season with Team Penske and seventh in Indy car racing. “We managed to get a snapshot of what qualifying would be like this time of the day (afternoon). The car was fast. So far, so good.”

Since only four of the 21 drivers raced Indy cars at PIR before, most spent the weekend becoming acclimated with the track that generates high G-forces in the turns.

“It’s a very, very grippy place,” said Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Chevrolet. “We’re pulling over five Gs and it’s a big commitment on such a place like this when you start to average speeds over 175 (mph). To give you an example, Milwaukee would be 3.5 Gs, so it’s a big commitment and big consequences if you get it wrong. It’s a fun place but you’ve got to make sure you don’t make a wrong assumption. That could be pretty costly.”

Teams now shift to road/street course mode for a private test March 1-2 at Sebring (Fla). International Raceway. The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 11-13. The race airs live on ABC at 12:30 p.m. ET March 13.

Ed Carpenter Racing duo shows strong at test

Ed Carpenter Racing left Phoenix International Raceway hopeful with both cars near the top of the speed chart.

Newgarden was third fastest overall in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy (19.2917 seconds, 190.714 mph), with Carpenter close behind in fourth (19.3316, 190.321) driving the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy. The team co-owner/driver didn’t hide his pleasure with the improvement in the team’s oval performance.

“It’s encouraging, for sure, when you look at where we were on the ovals a year ago starting the season,” Carpenter said. “It’s really encouraging to see the effort that the team’s put in to really improve. And not just our team, but the team at Chevrolet with their updates on the aero kit, too.”

Newgarden and Carpenter joined forces in 2015 at CFH Racing. While Newgarden enjoyed a breakout season with two wins and a seventh-place finish in the championship, Carpenter drove only on the ovals with just one top-10 start and two top-10 finishes in six events.

With an offseason to regroup and the team reverting to the Ed Carpenter Racing name, the chemistry is building.

“I’ve got a great relationship with Ed,” Newgarden said. “It was great to start working with him last year and it’s just gotten better over the offseason. We’ve really been able to work on a lot of different aspects of the team side, the car side, what we’re doing driving-wise.

“We have a great, really fluid relationship. He’s been open about his information, same with me. I think we work really well together. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”

KVSH Racing confirms Bourdais as driver, Hydroxycut as sponsor

Sebastien Bourdais is back with KVSH Racing and so is co-primary sponsor Hydroxycut for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

KVSH co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven, James “Sulli” Sullivan and Jimmy Vasser confirmed what Vasser called the “worst-kept secret of the season.” Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion, will drive the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Chevrolet. Bourdais won titles in Champ Car a record four straight seasons from 2004-2007 and is tied for seventh in all-time Indy car race wins with 34. Three of those wins have come with KVSH in the past two seasons.

It is expected to be the only full-season entry for KVSH in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series, allowing the team to focus on a single goal against multi-car operations.

“We’re no Penske or Ganassi, but we can be as good or better on any given day when we get our stuff together,” said Bourdais, who turns 37 on Feb. 28. “That’s really the challenge for me that I relish. I’ve been on the side of being expected to win because you’re on the big teams and that’s what you should be doing.

“To be able to do it with a small organization and sometimes a fraction of their budget is a very awesome feeling. It also proves how competitive the series is. It’s harder but when you get it done, it’s very gratifying and it’s a credit to the people in the organization.”

Vasser said the team was still working to field a second full-season entry until recently, when the ownership trio decided to focus the effort on Bourdais’ car only.

“To coin a phrase from Kevin Kalkhoven, we put all the wood behind this one arrow and all of our resources,” Vasser said. “The main component starts with the driver and Bourdais is a proven, great champion, a legend in the sport. After the last couple years, we really feel we’re in a position to fight for the championship.”

On-the-job training for rookies at Phoenix test

While Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Conor Daly of Dale Coyne Racing and Max Chilton of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams were on track and learning in the cockpit during the promoter test at Phoenix International Raceway, fellow Verizon IndyCar Series rookies Alexander Rossi and Spencer Pigot were acclimating to the teams they will compete with in 2016.

Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion, will drive in at least three races for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He spent much of his time watching the testing action from teammate Graham Rahal’s pit box.

“Just trying to learn as much as I can,” said Pigot, who will debut in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in two weeks but is not slated to race in the Phoenix Grand Prix on April 2.

Rossi, named to drive Andretti Autosport’s No. 98 Honda for the entire season earlier this week, watched the Feb. 26 PIR evening session from the spotter stand atop the Turn 1 suites with race strategist Bryan Herta and engineer Tom German.

“I’m here in an observatory role,” said Rossi, making his first-ever visit to an oval circuit and where he will make his oval racing debut in April. “It’s building (chemistry) day by day. This is only our second day working together and we’re just beginning to understand each other and how we communicate.

“It’s a very interesting perspective to be up top and see the different approaches you can take into a corner. When you’re watching a video or from pit lane, it can all look the same, but when you get up high you can see it from a different perspective.”

Pigot and Rossi won’t have to wait long to drive their cars. Each will test for the first time March 1 at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.

Two-seater ride has Air Force colonel, Diamondbacks pitcher, animator soaring

Col. David Shoemaker is vice commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, so he knows something about going fast. But getting a ride around Phoenix International Raceway from legendary Mario Andretti in the INDYCAR Experience two-seater Feb. 27 was enough to get the military veteran’s heart racing.

“Riding in an Indy car with Mario Andretti would have been on my bucket list if I knew it was even a possibility. That’s the absolute truth. That was unreal. Speed isn’t new to me, but speed to us is at a reference of 500 feet, not at 1 foot over the ground. That was unbelievable, unbelievable. Great.”

Tyler Clippard, who pitched in the 2015 World Series for the New York Mets before signing in the offseason with the Arizona Diamondbacks, received a two-seater ride from Andretti. And so did his mother.

“That was the most surreal thing,” Clippard said. “It didn’t really make sense what the car was capable of doing. When I was in it, I was like ‘we should not be going this fast and be able to turn this much.’ So it was incredible.

“Mario Andretti is the coolest thing for me and my mom. I’ve been to multiple Indianapolis 500s, my mom’s been to 30 of them. She’s a lifelong Mario Andretti fan, so I’m just so glad to get her out here and be able to do this. But for me, too, this was cool. Especially with Mario behind the wheel.”

Stephen King, an animator at Lucas Film, is another race fan who loved his two-seater ride around PIR with Andretti.

“This is a lifelong dream for me,” he said. “I vividly remember when I was 9, my dad taking me to my first race when it was in Vancouver and Mario was driving and his son (Michael) was driving. It was the early days and the security wasn’t really that good, so I was close up to action and just watching them go by and feeling like ‘I want to do that.’

“Unfortunately, I’m 6-foot-3 so that’s a little hard. But to be able to go do that was amazing, a dream come true, my bucket list, everything. My dad’s going to freak out when he finds out Mario Andretti drove me around the track.”