Friday's motorsports: Grosjean tops first IndyCar practice at Road America

Associated Press

Elkhart Lake, Wis. — Romain Grosjean paced IndyCar's opening practice at Road America and immediately wished he was not at the top of the board.

“I don’t like topping free practice,” the Frenchman said after Friday's session.

Grosjean went 1 minute, 47.6781 seconds in his Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda on the 14-turn, 4.014-mile road course, where he tested two weeks ago. The former Formula One driver must now try to maintain the pace through Sunday's race.

“When you lead a free practice, you don’t want to make many changes for the rest of the weekend,” Grosjean said. "When you’re first, you don’t want to make too big changes, but if you... (are) struggling in practice, you know you need to make some big changes because you kind of feel there’s nothing to lose.”

Romain Grosjean races during the first race of the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix auto racing doubleheader on Belle Isle in Detroit Saturday, June 12, 2021.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was second fastest in practice and followed by Josef Newgarden.

IndyCar has another practice scheduled Saturday ahead of qualifying and the three fastest drivers in the first session all lobbied for IndyCar to return to a more traditional schedule. The series this year has eliminated Friday morning practices in a cost-saving measure.

“What is a normal schedule?” asked rookie Grosjean.

Hunter-Reay explained to him that IndyCar up until this season held two Friday practices, one Saturday morning practice and then qualifying — the same format used in F1.

“The teams apparently are saving money on doing the shortened schedule because it’s one less day in hotels, things like that. There’s a bigger subject on the economics of the whole thing,” Hunter-Reay said. “As for a racing driver and fans, it would be better to have the Friday, Saturday, Sunday back again.”

Newgarden said all of his Team Penske teammates want the old schedule back. The four Penske drivers are winless through the first eight races of the season.

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Kevin Magnussen, meanwhile, turned his first laps in an Indy car in the practice session as the replacement driver for Felix Rosenqvist, who was injured in a crash last week at Detroit. He was Grosjean's teammate at Haas in F1 until both were dumped at the end of last season and the Danish driver has since looked for work in the United States.

His full-time job is driving the IMSA sports car for Chip Ganassi Racing, but the team gave him permission to race for Arrow McLaren SP this weekend. Magnussen's father, Jan, subbed for an injured Emerson Fittipaldi 25 years ago at Road America and is an F1 veteran and sports car standout who made 11 starts when IndyCar was called CART.

“It’s never been a secret that IndyCar is something that I am pretty passionate about,” Magnussen said. “It’s nothing new. My dad raced Indy cars in the mid-90s when I was only a small little kid, and I can remember back then that I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to do that one day.’”

He's joined in the field this weekend by Cody Shane Ware, who races mostly in NASCAR this year and will make his debut as Grosjean's teammate. Ware was 22nd on the speed chart, sandwiched between seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Magnussen.

Oliver Askew also returned to the field for the second consecutive race as a substitute. He filled in for Rosenqvist at Detroit but was grabbed by Ed Carpenter Racing for this weekend after Rinus VeeKay broke his collarbone when he fell off his bike during a training ride.

Askew was ninth fastest in Friday practice and said returning to a car — he was let go at the end of last season by Arrow McLaren and has no ride this year — “was just like riding a bike, right?” He was immediately mortified and insisted he wasn't making fun of VeeKay, his former rival in the Road to Indy ladder system.

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VeeKay, who fist-bumped Askew after the practice session, took the pun in stride.

“I’ll tell you, riding a bike isn’t that easy,” he wrote to Askew on social media.

More motorsports

Trackhouse aims to be Nashville's newest pro sports team

Nashville, Tenn. — Trackhouse Racing introduced itself to Nashville outside of Tootsie's, the famed honkytonk located in the shadow of the Ryman Auditorium. In two years, it hopes to be NASCAR's newest professional sports team.

Trackhouse is in its first season of existence and based in North Carolina, the hub for almost every NASCAR team. But team owner Justin Marks is a Nashville resident and by 2023 wants Trackhouse operating in Music City in the heart of the downtown entertainment district.

“We really want to be Nashville’s racing team," said Marks, who secured sponsorship from Tootsie's Orchid Lounge for the No. 99 Chevrolet driven by Daniel Suarez.

The Chevy this week has been wrapped in purple and adorned with a pair of large orchids to match Tootsie's iconic building located on Lower Broadway. It will race Sunday when NASCAR's Cup Series returns to Nashville for the first time in 37 years.

Nashville Superspeedway re-opened after a decade of dormancy and the track will cap a three-day weekend with its first ever Cup race. It's an important race for Marks, who has an unconventional, long-term vision for this new NASCAR team.

He has partnered with Pitbull and the entertainer will be at the track Saturday and Sunday for his fourth race of the season. Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion and only full-time Mexican driver in NASCAR, is in his fifth Cup season but happier with Trackhouse than his previous three teams. The pairing with Suarez and Pitbull fits Marks' goal to reach a demographic largely untouched in NASCAR.

“A lot of what we're doing with the 99 car is trying to tap into the United States' Latin market, which has a spending power of $1.3 trillion a year,” Marks said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It's a large group of people, passionate sports fans, and they are American consumers. There's not really another team in NASCAR that has infiltrated that market.”

And he wants to do it from Nashville, but in the entertainment district and not the industrial park-type setup many NASCAR teams have built.

“We don't want to build something the way they exist in Charlotte, we want something in downtown Nashville that is a public business open to the public every day that is a racing-themed attraction,” Marks said. “We want to incorporate entertainment, music, everything that is synonymous with Nashville but with that Americana-racing theme.”

There is still this first season to get through on the track, as well as Marks' search for a charter that guarantees Suarez a spot in the field each week. Trackhouse leased a charter from Spire Motorsports this year but NASCAR rules don't allow the team to lease the same charter in consecutive seasons. Spire said Friday it has sold two of its three charters to Kaulig Racing for that team to move to Cup next season.

That leaves Marks scanning the market and trying to determine his best path.

Suarez is with his fourth team in four seasons but never happier than he is with Trackhouse.

“We have an amazing opportunity to do something different and I love the way Justin thinks, he thinks outside the box and has a lot of very cool ideas that I like,” Suarez said. “He doesn't mind to take risks and that's why I am here with him right now in this ride.”

Suarez, who is 22nd in the Cup standings, is in a tight cluster of drivers trying to crack the top 16 to earn a playoff berth. He's only 38 points behind Matt DiBenedetto in the 17th spot, but Suarez believes Nashville is where he can make up significant ground.

He's done well this year at tracks that have had a practice session, starting with the dirt track at Bristol where he led 58 laps and finished a season-high fourth. NASCAR will hold a 55-minute practice session on Saturday and then qualifications before Sunday's race.

NASCAR since the start of the pandemic has cut almost all practice and qualifying sessions, which has hurt less experienced teams. Suarez noted a tire issue cost him a top-10 finish at Charlotte, where the Cup cars did practice, and that a win is within reach this season.

“I feel like we have the speed. We are still making mistakes as a new group,” said Suarez, who noted Trackhouse experimented last week at Texas and “we completely missed it.”

“Those are the things that we are paying the price once in awhile of a new group not having practice or any testing," he said. "But we are really smart, we know what we have to do, we know what works for us and we're trying to stick with that plan.”