IndyCar looks to build on 2016 success at Road America
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) When he was growing up, Graham Rahal found more than enough to do to stay occupied at Road America while the racers in his family went to work.
Now Rahal is the doing the driving, and he feels like a kid again back at the rural Wisconsin road course.
It is Year 2 of IndyCar’s return to Road America. The track went nine years in between stops from a major open-wheel circuit before IndyCar roared back in 2016. The 221-mile Kohler Grand Prix is scheduled for Sunday
”So it means a lot to us. I’ve spent many, many, many days running around, terrorizing this place,” said Rahal, who drives for a team co-owned by his father, 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. ”It’s changed a little bit, but just an awesome, awesome race track. A lot of great memories.”
It’s all business behind the wheel, especially with a competitive points race just past the midpoint of the IndyCar season. Rahal is in sixth place, one of six drivers within 49 points of leader Scott Dixon. Rahal is surging at midseason, a couple weeks after sweeping the doubleheader at the Detroit Grand Prix.
Practice started at Road America on Friday, while qualifying is Saturday on the 14-turn course.
Away from the garage, the trip to Elkhart Lake might seem more like a vacation. Wooded areas and campgrounds are interspersed around the 4.014-mile course. Last year, driver Will Power took a walk around the campgrounds during his down time. He would join the campers if he had the time.
”I love it. This is one my favorite race tracks,” said Power, last year’s Road America winner. ”From the circuit itself, to the way the race track is laid out and how fast it is.”
Road America replaced the venerable Milwaukee Mile oval as the Wisconsin stop on the IndyCar circuit and it’s been a hit.
Road America officials have said that last season’s IndyCar date drew the largest crowd ever in the track’s 35-year history, though they did not have specific attendance numbers.
IndyCar had no major issues with the track, which is in the middle of three-year contract with the series. The sides will likely start talking about an extension later this year.
”It made perfect sense from a fan perspective … considering how many people had been asking for us to return to Road America,” said IndyCar vice president of promoter relations Stephen Starks. ”And then we feel this facility does a good job promoting our product. It made perfect sense for us to return.
Any changes at the track coming into this weekend had more to do with reacting to fan input. Two more giant television screens were added. A trail from Turns 11 to 13 that allowed for elevated views of the course was paved. Bathrooms and shower facilities were added near campground areas. A disc golf course was added.
As for the racing itself, it seems as if the open-wheel circuit never left. The race was extended by five laps and 20 miles from last year. Rahal said he wished that more distance was added because he thinks that his No. 15 Honda can still make it around in three pit stops.
But it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm about one of his childhood playgrounds.
”It was always my dad’s favorite track,” Rahal said. ”It certainly is mine.”
NOTE: Robert Wickens drove the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in practice with Mikhail Aleshin unable to get to Road America. The team has said the Russian was held up by immigration issues in France, where he drove the 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend. Aleshin was scheduled to be on a flight that would land in Chicago on Friday night, team co-owner Sam Schmidt said on IndyCar radio. … Alexander Rossi had the fastest lap time (1:43.328) in the first practice session on Friday, while Josef Newgarden (1:42.822) had the fast time in the second session.
More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org