INDYCAR Media Day brings out the 'better' in drivers

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AUSTIN, Texas — One by one, from Matheus Leist to Ed Carpenter, from Marcus Ericsson to Josef Newgarden, from Will Power to Alexander Rossi, 29 NTT IndyCar Series drivers took roundtable turns sharing upbeat observations about the upcoming 2019 season.

The buzz word for many during Monday’s INDYCAR Media Day at the Fairmont hotel was “better.” Everyone always expects stronger finishes, but most evident was an enthusiasm about being part of a series that’s moving in a positive direction with a new title sponsor and NBC Sports TV deal.

Five-time and reigning series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing is “extremely pumped” about how the series is trending.

“I think everybody after a long winter is ready to get going,” Dixon said. “This is the best racing in the world.”

“We’re all optimistic for 2019,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion with Andretti Autosport.

Young or old, experienced or newcomer, the series of interviews provided a glimpse at what’s to come before a two-day open test at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) road course. The Tuesday-Wednesday test is also just a taste — teams will be back in five weeks for the much-anticipated series debut at COTA in the March 24 INDYCAR Classic.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud tested at COTA for Chevrolet in 2015.

“The driving requires (you) to be quite creative,” the 2016 series champion said of the 20-turn, 3.427-mile layout. “The fact we’re going to a new track is exciting for everybody. New things are good.”

Graham Rahal turned 30 last month, but suggests he feels kind of old considering he started in the series at the age of 18. The six-time race winner returns with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as not just one of the more talented drivers but one of the series’ loudest advocates.

“I still feel like I’ve got a long time ahead of me to help push this sport forward,” said Rahal, who teams again with Takuma Sato at RLL.

The series’ oldest driver, 44-year-old Tony Kanaan, conceded he and his AJ Foyt Racing team need to deliver stronger results for his legendary boss. The 2004 series champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner finished a career-worst 16th in the points in 2018.

“It’s been a lot slower process than I thought it would be,” Kanaan said. “We’re trying to be better. It’s not an excuse. It’s a reality we have.”

Another familiar Brazilian face was three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who gets the chance to test at COTA for Team Penske and is looking forward to returning to the series in May for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and 103rd Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“I can be out of an Indy car, but INDYCAR is never out of me,” said Castroneves, who after 30 wins in 20 seasons of Indy car racing shifted full time to IMSA sports cars for Roger Penske last year.

He did return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May, where he finished sixth in the INDYCAR Grand Prix but crashed out 27th in the Indy 500. Nobody was more enthusiastic this day to be back in the fold, even if it’s just for two days.

“I’m excited to be doing spring training here,” said Castroneves, 43.

Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Zach Veach summed up the eagerness to race at COTA.

“I welcome that challenge,” Andretti said.

“It’s going to be fun,” Veach said.

Rossi, the 2018 NTT IndyCar Series runner-up, raced at COTA while in Formula 1 in 2015.

“It’s nice that we’re finally racing here,” he said. “It’s one of the best road courses in North America. March can’t get here soon enough.”

Tuesday’s first of the two-day COTA test will stream live on IndyCar.com, beginning at 11 a.m. ET. The NTT IndyCar Series and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires will each have two sessions during the day.

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