Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR

INDYCAR Drivers Prepare for iRacing Action at Watkins Glen

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

The fans have voted and the first IndyCar iRacing Challenge that’ll commence Saturday will be the virtual Watkins Glen International, a popular track the NTT IndyCar Series drivers last visited in 2017.

Over 25 competitors are set to compete in the 45-lap event titled the American Red Cross Grand Prix as the sport will raise awareness to the organization and encouraging people to donate blood during these difficult times due to the COVID-19 health crisis.

The grid will include INDYCAR champion Josef Newgarden, reigning Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, reigning Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Although many of the stars of INDYCAR will compete, the iRacing series won’t crown a champion after the six-race journey ends May 2. Instead, there will be a special element where the sport makes a donation to one of their charity partners.

Before the unpredictable nature that’ll unfold Saturday, Tony Kanaan, Sage Karam, Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi took part of Friday morning’s teleconference to discuss about how this event provides INDYCAR fans an outlet to get some sort of action as their season will now start in June at this time.

Pagenaud, who enters 2020 as the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, said the virtual race will be a lot of fun and despite not having a lot of iRacing experience, he knows how the product evolved the world of racing.

“It’s nice to find an avenue to have some fun, also show our sponsors on the racetrack, even though it’s virtual,” Pagenaud said. “It’s obviously where we’ve been going. This sport has been evolving towards more simulator, simulation, very advanced technology.

“This is showing what our job as drivers has become. We have to train more and more with simulators. We have less and less testing on the real racetrack, but more and more on simulators.”

Pagenaud noted that the prone of an accident will significantly increase, as he experienced that Thursday night when he was practicing in New York’s prestigious road circuit.

“It’s a lot of fun. Obviously it’s a lot easier to crash,” Pagenaud said. “Last night we had a practice race. I crashed in the first corner, which is quite unusual for me. So we’ll see if I can finish it. It’s definitely fun, it’s great to have some competition. We’ll see how it goes. We excited to give a good show to the fans.”

Both Kanaan and Rossi are new to sim racing as they credited George Steinbrenner IV for hooking them up on a sim to compete Saturday.

Kanaan, who participated in the teleconference in his bathroom, also credited Rossi and Colton Herta for make it possible to compete as they went to Steinbrenner’s house with Rossi having a code to get the two sims last Thursday.

“The last thing my wife wanted to see in this house was a sim,” Kanaan said. “I am in my bathroom, by the way, because actually my kids will break into this interview. My wife is working out in the closet.”

Following a quick laugh, Kanaan best pointed out why the American Red Cross Grand Prix will be significant for the INDYCAR fanatics who want to cheer on their favorite drivers.

“I think it was a great way to connect with the fans, especially in these tough times. Everybody is looking for something to do at home,” Kanaan said. “I mean, hey, they’re watching TV, something on the Internet, going outside of your own house, trying to keep people entertained. I think this is really important. That’s why I’m taking part of it.

“I’m nowhere near as competitive as I thought I was going to be, but I’ve been getting a lot of help from Rossi. He’s obviously got a better handle of it than I do. Happy to help and hopefully we’ll have some fun.”

Rossi, who won the last-ever INDYCAR race at “The Glen” to date, loved the fact the fans voted that over Michigan International Speedway as the circuit of choice, but knows that it’s one thing to be strong in real life, but translating it on the virtual world is challenge of its own.

“It was an amazing event, a fantastic racetrack, one of my favorites of all time. It’s pretty cool to get back there in one way or another on iRacing,” Rossi said. “As Simon said, it’s very challenging. There’s little things you have to do different than driving in reality. At the end of the day it’s competitive and still a lot of fun to drive that track.”

Rossi is interested how the 45-lap race will go and hopes to put on an incredible show as he’s known to do on a race-by-race basis.

“I think everyone is a little bit unknown of how it’s going to be just with the varying levels of experience and kind of skill sets,” Rossi said. “Nonetheless, it’s going to be great to put on a show and give people something to get excited about INDYCAR. Very happy to be a part of it.

One of the more experienced drivers in iRacing with 143 wins on road courses is Karam. While used to running on the platform, he understands the grid expectations have changed after they’ve practiced quite hard this past week.

“It’s definitely a challenge. I think we thought it was going to be a bit easier maybe than what it’s turned out,” Karam said. “We changed the setup I think like seven or eight times now. Hopefully we can get it worked out.”

Karam added the drivers will have another practice race later today while also having fun in the process.

“I think the whole series is going to be cool, to be able to do some ovals and road courses,” Karam added. “Like you all have been saying, it’s for the fans, give them something they can watch. We’re really the only sport that can do something like this. It’s really cool we can still get our sponsors out there, our teams, still have fun.”

Despite not running a full-time schedule, the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver is used to starting his season later as this year was to see him running more races, including the now season finale race at St. Petersburg.

However, with everything that’s happened, he feels bad for guys like Conor Daly, who will be driving for both Ed Carpenter Racing and Carlin to cover an entire season after years of racing part-time the last few years. Therefore, seat time is crucial than ever before for the 25-year-old veteran.

“I’m kind of used to the limited schedule, starting late thing. These guys are the ones that aren’t. It’s going to be a really long off-season apparently. We’re trying our best to get through it all,” Karam said. “I think it’s, like, a shame for guys like Daly who finally got a full season ride he’s been working for, then had his opportunity, now it’s like put on hold, kind of like that.

“I had an opportunity to go race at St. Pete. My team at Dreyer & Reinbold and WIX have been working really hard to do. We finally got it all together, just can’t really do it.

“Obviously seat time helps. In my situation, any time I can drive more it’s going to help me. Like the two days at did at Sebring was really awesome for me to just be able to do laps, not worry about a red flag ruining your tire run or whatever. We could just burn through tires, just do miles. That was good.”

Once racing resumes which is slated to now take place at Belle Isle in Detroit May 30, both Rossi and Kanaan said their simulation racing careers will be over.

“I’m out I think,” Rossi on any interest of doing a winter series, should one come into fruition. “As long as racing returns to normal, I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”

“I’m with Alex,” Kanaan following Rossi’s response. “If I keep doing this, I probably going to have to live on somebody else’s couch because my wife will divorce me.”

Kanaan closed out the teleconference point out that he’s also running at virtual Watkins Glen to keep his streak of 317 consecutive starts alive, even hinting at a “start and park” effort like a handful of NASCAR drivers practiced in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

“I got to say I’m only participating on this because of the unfortunate the situation,” Kanaan said. “I didn’t start the season. In the beginning I cannot miss my consecutive starts, so that’s why I’m taking part of it. I might start and park, but that’s why I’m doing that.”

Watkins Glen will be the first of six straight Saturdays the IndyCar iRacing Challenge will take place with Barber Motorsports Park being the next round April 4. Following Barber are a “Driver’s Choice” circuit (April 11), a “Random Draw” circuit (April 18), Circuit of the Americas (April 25) and a non-INDYCAR “Dream” circuit for the finale May 2.

The NBC Sports broadcasting trio of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will provide commentary of the iRacing event, which will air live at 4:00pm EST on INDYCAR.com, INDYCAR’s YouTube and Facebook and iRacing’s Twitch channel.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography ranging from Idaho athletics to auto racing with ambitions of having his work recognized.