‘5 Things To Look For …’ heading into Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

The INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, a virtual racing event featuring a full field of NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers, continues Saturday, April 4 with the Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET at Barber Motorsports Park.

The event, which will last approximately 60 minutes, will be broadcast live on NBCSN. The NBC broadcasting team of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will call the action. The pre-race activities will be highlighted by 2019 Miss Alabama Tiara Pennington singing the national anthem and NBA and Auburn University legend Charles Barkley giving the command to start engines.

Click: Entry List | Spotter Guide

The entry list of 29 drivers – up from 25 from the series opener March 28 at Watkins Glen International – includes series champions Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, five Indianapolis 500 winners and collectively has registered 189 series victories.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson also is back this week after starting 19th and finishing 16th last Saturday at Watkins Glen in his first competition in an Indy car, albeit virtual.

The Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is the second of six events to be held weekly each Saturday through May 2. After this event, remaining races include a “Driver’s Choice” track (April 11), a “Random Draw” track (April 18), Circuit of The Americas (April 25) and a non-INDYCAR “Dream” track (May 2).

Here are “5 Things To Look For…” heading into Saturday’s Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama:

‘New Faces’

The INDYCAR iRacing Challenge field grew to 29 drivers for the Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this Saturday with the addition of five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing), 2018 series Rookie of the Year Robert Wickens (Arrow McLaren SP), three-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge pole winner Ed Carpenter (Ed Carpenter Racing) and Jack Harvey (Meyer Shank Racing).

All drivers in this week’s field – including the four newcomers – will encounter a new strategic element, as a competition caution period will bunch the field on Lap 15. A single-file restart will follow the three-lap caution period.

‘Welcome Back, Robert’

2018 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year Robert Wickens will return to competition this weekend as he makes his INDYCAR iRacing Challenge debut in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.

Wickens, from Guelph, Ontario, suffered serious injuries in an accident during an INDYCAR race in July 2018 at Pocono Raceway. He will compete Saturday in a SimCraft simulator with special hand controls because of restricted use of his legs and feet due to a spinal cord injury suffered in the crash.

Former INDYCAR driver and current INDYCAR race steward Max Papis is helping Wickens’ efforts to compete virtually. Papis’ steering wheel company, Max Papis Innovations, designed and produced a custom wheel with hand controls for Wickens. The unit arrived at Wickens’ home Thursday, April 2, but he didn’t have enough time to get acclimated with it before Saturday’s race, so he will use the MPI unit at future rounds of the virtual series.

While Wickens is excited to compete virtually, he sees the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge as another important step in his goal to return to real race cars. His journey also has included tireless hours of physical therapy and rehabilitation, which he has documented often and inspired millions with on social media.

“The biggest thing for me is although this is fun, I see this as the long-term project of getting me back into the race car,” Wickens said. “I always knew through simulation was going to be the best way to trial different handbrake or paddle configurations. This is step one of a hundred to get me back into the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.”

‘Coach Karam’

Sage Karam , a veteran and successful iRacing competitor, so dominated the inaugural round of the series Saturday, March 28 that his rivals have sought his advice this week during preparation for the Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

NTT INDYCAR SERIES veteran Karam won the pole and led 43 of the 45 laps in his No. 24 WIX Filters DRR Chevrolet to beat Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing to the checkered flag by 3.6174 seconds at Watkins Glen International.

Now that he’s a marked man as the current king of INDYCAR iRacing, Karam is dispensing tips to his rivals – to a point.

“It’s fun to help them get up to speed in iRacing,” Karam said. “I just don’t want to give them too much information as I am still competing against them each week from my home. If I can help make the overall product more competitive, it will be great for the racing on the screen and the racing fans.”

‘Carpenter Back on the Road’

Ed Carpenter is known and respected as one of the best oval racers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. All three of his career series victories have come on circle tracks, and he also has won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 three times.

Road racing? Well, not so fast. Ed Carpenter Racing owner-driver Carpenter has driven only in oval events for the last six-plus years, with his last road-course start in the series coming Oct. 6, 2013 on the street course in Houston.

But the lure of competing against his friends and rivals in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge was too much for Carpenter to resist. So, he’s hitting the road and making his virtual series debut Sunday in the No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet. Carpenter is using the No. 21 of ECR teammate Rinus VeeKay because ECR teammate Conor Daly already is using Carpenter’s No. 20 virtual car, as Daly will compete in all real NTT INDYCAR SERIES road and street events this season in the No. 20.

“I am looking forward to finally getting some racing in on Saturday,” Carpenter said. “It has been a long time since I competed in a road race. Both the cars and iRacing have changed quite a lot. I am a week late to the party, but hopefully I will be up to speed enough to give the 21 car a good ride! 

“I know my friends and family are excited to watch me, so no pressure! Hopefully everyone tunes into NBCSN and enjoys a little bit of relief from their quarantine.”

‘Turns for Troops’

United Rentals and NTT INDYCAR SERIES veteran Graham Rahal are teaming up to continue the Turns for Troops program during the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge. United Rentals has committed to donate $50 per lap that Rahal completes this season to the SoldierStrong program to help improve the lives of U.S. military veterans.

Through cutting-edge rehabilitation, recovery and scholarship programs, SoldierStrong transforms the lives of U.S. service members by empowering them to regain their mobility, freedom and overall sense of identity.

Fans can learn more about Turns for Troops and SoldierStrong by visiting turnsfortroops.ur.com.

IndyCar PR