Annika Sörenstam is making the most of her first-ever NTT INDYCAR SERIES experience.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest female golfers in history, Sörenstam is the grand marshal for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, but she arrived a day early to help share a special moment. As part of an effort by Gainbridge, she was among the four athletes, each from women’s sports (basketball, golf, tennis and water skiing) that were invited to attend the race and take part in adding a special look to Colton Herta’s No. 26 Gainbridge Honda for Andretti Autosport.
The other females to join Sörenstam were Destanni Henderson (basketball/Indiana Fever/WNBA), Gigi Fernandez (tennis/Billie Jean King Cup) and Elizabeth Montavon (water skiing/parity athlete), with each putting their respective logo decal on the car to help showcase and spread awareness of women sports.
Overall, the support means a tremendous amount to Sörenstam.
“It's huge,” Sörenstam said. “Gainbridge, they do so much for women, in this case, for women's sports, to create awareness and exposures and opportunities for the women. And it's a totally different level, it really is, to be included on something like this. So, yeah, we're super thankful they do so much.”
While Sörenstam admitted she might “need some coaching” with waving the green flag for Sunday’s race, she’s enjoying her first taste of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock.
“I'm a total newbie,” she said. “It's super fascinating, what goes behind the scenes – the teamwork, the technology, all the preparation and then they go so fast. I just looked, and it was like, 'Wow.' Trying to think of ways to compare it to golf, obviously with preparation, technology and teamwork and all of that. But still, it's so different.”
While looking at the diversity of fans around the paddock and noticing the women working on the teams, she smiled and took a moment to express her happiness over the growth of creating awareness for being more inclusive.
“It makes us proud,” Sörenstam said. “If you walk around here, look at the fans, I mean, there's a variety of people here, so it's nice to see that it's coming all the way into to the pits, to the races, to the drivers. It's really neat and I think other people, just as a fan, I think it's fun to see the diversity, to see some other people sharing the same passion, sharing the same interest.
“And it's inspiring for the young girls, especially, to see that there's room for them here. That this is not just for somebody else. I think this is where it starts, creating that so little girls can dream.”
Canapino’s Getting Comfy
Agustín Canapino is a rookie in every sense of the word.
The 33-year-old Argentinian hadn’t been behind the wheel of an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car until the open test last month at The Thermal Club but appears to be growing more comfortable with every lap in the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet. This weekend marks his official debut in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, and he has shown impressive pace despite his limited experience in the car and no previous running around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit.
He wrapped up opening practice 19th out of 27 drivers Friday, logging 34 laps with a best time of 1 minute, 2.3629 seconds. Although he dropped to 22nd in the running order in Saturday’s second practice, the time improved to dramatically to 1:01.7063 after gaining another 24 laps of experience. Even more noticeable, he was directly behind teammate Callum Ilott on the timesheets.
Canapino qualified a solid 21st in the 27-car field for his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES start in the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet.
“I'm improving,” Canapino said. “Today is better than yesterday and the day before that, better than the first time. So, I am improving day by day, step by step. I'm very happy with today because I am closing the gap with the leaders and Callum (Ilott).
“I felt much more comfortable. Honestly, the only problem I had is I couldn't put the softer tires on before qualifying, before the red flags and too many accidents. The track is very, very tricky, very difficult. It is the only thing I wished to do but I couldn't. But I'm happy with the start. My big challenge is to try to keep the car without damage, doing laps. The physical condition, it's really difficult to me. My first time, the car is very aggressive, so I need to work on my physical condition.”
When asked how hard he’s pushing, Canapino smiled and delivered a candid response.
“I don’t know,” he said. “This is the thing. Honestly, I don't know how far the limit is because it's all new. The open wheels, warming the tires, these tires, this car, this place.
“I need to go step by step because if I want to touch the limit too early, very probably I will crash. So, I am doing the job step by step, keeping my mind on the work, on my work and trying to avoid the mistakes. The results are really, really good for me, but I don't keep my mind on that. I keep my mind on my job on learning.”
The title defense starts now for Will Power.
As a two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, the Australian has been here before, but not since his maiden title feat in 2014.
These days, though, Power is more reserved over the opportunity, which he puts down to more experience.
“It's different because of so, so many more reps,” said Power, 42.
So, there’s less anxiety?
“Oh, by a mile,” he said. “I'm here enjoying the racing and enjoying racing is winning, extracting the most out of yourself and even sometimes it's not winning. It's just qualifying 19th and finishing third is a phenomenal day. Finishing in the top five, that sort of thing. Like, they're enjoyable days.”
Power put the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in Victory Lane once last year, but the overwhelming consistency of nine podiums – and 12 top four results – across 17 races was enough to fend off teammate Josef Newgarden’s season-high (and career best) mark of five wins to capture the Astor Challenge Cup.
Newgarden wasn’t shy in his frustrations of finishing runner-up at the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and went a step further by stating his intentions of an all-out assault for a third title in 2023.
Power knows that feeling all too well. After all, he finished as a championship runner-up four times (2010, 2011, 2012, 2016), amassing five and six wins each of first two title near misses, both season-highs. So, when it comes to winning often but falling short of a title or using consistency to claim the title, it’s a toss-up on what’s preferred, according to Power.
“Depends on your mindset, but it is very nice to win,” said Power, who has 41 career wins (fifth all time). “It is frustrating when you don't win for a while. No question, because that's what you are here to do. Also, if you're not in a position to win, you've got to take what you can get. I have been frustrated before to be the quickest guy and not win a championship. I understand it. Like, I hate that position. That's really, really frustrating. But yeah, I would like to win more races. I would like to have won more races last year.”
A reserved mindset for Power doesn’t mean his passion is flickering. On the contrary, he remains as committed as ever about the racing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, especially after a healthy reminder of how challenging it can be on the first day of offseason testing at The Thermal Club last month.
“At Thermal, I went out that first session at the end of that session, did a new tire run and came in puffing on the radio, and I was like, 'I forgot how hard it is and how hard you have to drive to get the time out of these things,'” he said. “If you are thinking, 'Oh, I'm just backed off a bit,' you are 20th. It's just not a thing in this series. Sorry, you are never going to relax.
“You have to hustle these things to be quick. Everyone is so good. That's what needs to be put out there. There isn't a series like it. If you look at the spread of lap time of us and then look at Formula One, Formula One isn't even on the map, man. Not even on the map of how hard it is.”
And just like that, like lighting a match, that fiery version of Power returned.
“If everyone had the Red Bull car in Formula One, it would be a way different story, and (Max) Verstappen would be extracting more out of himself,” Power said. “You're not seeing the best of those guys with the best cars in Formula One. I know that. I know that from personal experience.
“When you have an advantage with a (INDYCAR SERIES) car in the aero kit days, you think you're doing a great job because you have backed off a bit and there's no mistakes and, 'Oh, I'm hitting every apex,' when everyone gets the same stuff. You would find more than you'll ever find. And in any series where someone has a huge advantage, they are not getting that unless they have a teammate pushing them hard, which Verstappen does not. So, you're not seeing the best of that guy.”
When asked by NBC’s Kevin Lee to pinpoint the difference between earning the pole and ending up second to Andretti Autosport teammate Romain Grosjean, runner-up qualifier Herta said: “My driving. On that last lap, I was about as useless as gum on a boot heel. It's a tough one to take. We're still in a great spot. I thought it was a pole that we definitely could have gotten, and I just made a mess with the lap. So, happy with P2. It's still a great spot to start in. Hopefully, we can get behind (Romain) Grosjean on the start tomorrow and go from there.”
Kirkwood Stays Upbeat
Kyle Kirkwood was making the most of his debut behind the wheel of the No. 27 AutoNation Honda for Andretti Autosport after making a first-ever appearance in the Firestone Fast Six. However, the outing came undone in the final corner as the sophomore driver ended up locking up the left front and slammed into the wall to put a sour note on the effort. However, Kirkwood tried to take away the positives.
“I just locked up on the entry, and with the way the downwind section is at the moment, it’s a little bit sketchy,” Kirkwood said. “So, I got around the corner, and I still had a lot of weight unloaded on the left front, locked up and then it is impossible to get the tire to unlock. So, unfortunately I just ended up left front in the wall. Disappointing.
“It’s my first Fast Six, so can’t take anything away from that. The team has been amazing. This is the least ideal situation, but ultimately we’re in the Fast Six with three cars in the Fast Six. So, we’re definitely happy with that.”
Andretti Autosport Works OT for McElrea in INDY NXT by Firestone
Hunter McElrea’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Dallara looked like a collection for the junkyard after his massive crash in Turn 3 in Friday’s opening practice session.
Instead of opting for other scenarios such as a backup car, the team grinded away for over six hours and finished repairs around 9:30 p.m. ET.
“The complete front wing, complete left front suspension from the tub out,” said Don Lambert, team manager of Andretti Autosport’s INDY NXT operation. “From what we call the front of the sidepod is the beak, that whole piece and all the sidepod, the radiator inlet, inter cooler and oil cooler, left rear side suspension, rear wing, underwing, wheels, uprights, driveshaft, bell housing. The engine is the only thing we didn't have to take out last night.”
McElrea will start 12th in the race Sunday (9:50 a.m. ET, Peacock and INDYCAR Radio Network).