Helio Castroneves celebrates after winning pole position last season at Phoenix International Raceway.

Helio Castroneves celebrates after winning pole position last season at Phoenix International Raceway.

IndyCar officials promised. So did those who drive the 230 mph race-car rockets:

More entertaining racing for Phoenix International Raceway fans.

Scott Dixon led the final 155 laps in winning the series’ 250-lap return to the Avondale track last April after an 11-year absence. The Verizon Series event included the kind of frenetic intensity bursts IndyCar is famous for on short ovals but, once early pit stops were over, any exciting cut-and-thrust action happened well behind Dixon.

“Can we make it better?” started Dixon afterward. “Yes we can, and next year, will definitely be better.”

The first attempt to do that, before the April 29 Phoenix Grand Prix, came in IndyCar’s official 21-car, two-day preseason test, which ended Saturday night.

Dixon and other prominent drivers didn’t sound too optimistic. IndyCar froze its aero kit rules this season in anticipation of new bodywork that will be used by all teams next season. That means the cars will still be generating about 5,000 pounds of aerodynamic downforce, which pushes the chassis into the track for stability, yet can make passing more difficult.

But Jay Frye, IndyCar’s competition president and – with track President Bryan Sperber – the man most responsible for bringing the open-wheel speedsters back to the Valley, pointed to three things he said will make for better racing.

“Historically, we know when we come back to a venue for the second time, the race and the product is very good,” Frye said. “When we raced here last year, most of (the drivers) had never been here before. Now, through repetition, you get better. The drivers and cars look to me to be more comfortable.”

Frye added that Firestone plans to provide a slightly different tire. Top drivers prefer a softer tire that degrades during the run between refueling stops, making handling more tricky and tends to put a premium on their skill. And Honda, outpaced by Chevrolet last year, has added the powerhouse four-car Chip Ganassi team, which includes Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

“We all know it’s our job to put on a great show,” said Frye, a former NASCAR Cup Series team principal.

Drivers seemed to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

“To be honest, right now, I couldn’t tell you either way,” Dixon admitted. “We’ve done all we can, as drivers, to make the show better.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay added: “Our first objective, as drivers, is to make a better show for the fans. It’s more fun for us. We had a race last year where it takes 30 laps to pass a car. It’s frustrating. We know that’s not what the fans want to see. I’m not sure yet what it’s going to be this year.”

Helio Castroneves, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and last year’s Phoenix pole winner, experimented with the different tire not long ago.

“We hope the tires will be the big solution,” he said.

A scheduling change that Frye believes will make a difference: April 28 practice will be at night, with next-day qualifying just five hours before the green flag.

“Practice will better match the actual race conditions,” he said.

Rossi wrecks

Alexander Rossi, surprise rookie winner of last year’s 100th Indy 500, spun and backed into the Turn 2 wall early in Saturday practice. He wasn’t injured.

“The car felt fine – it just got loose and snapped,” Rossi said. “This was my first real contact with the wall … it won’t stop me from pushing hard.”

Big dig

Castroneves climbed aboard a CAT excavator for the official groundbreaking of the track’s $178 million redevelopment, scheduled to be completed in November 2018.

Pulling up the first load of dirt “was a new move for me,” said the former “Dancing With the Stars” winner.

Super Saturday

Sperber, working to build on last year’s attendance of a bit under 20,000, plans what might be an unmatched race-day schedule of diverse racing content.

In addition to the IndyCar qualifying and race, there will be a mid-afternoon USAC Silver Crown Series event. The front-engine cars, which also race on dirt tracks, were a popular portion of Phoenix’ old Copper World Classic. An on-track classic car exhibition is expected to be another addition. USAC’s quarter-midget division will race on the fan midway.

Pit stops

  • J.R. Hildebrand was the first to unofficially break Castroneves’ track record of 192.324 mph.
  • Dixon was wearing a plain white drivers’ uniform, without major sponsor identification, since Target ended its backing of Ganassi’s team, which began in 1990.
  • Arie Luyendyk, the two-time Indy winner and Fountain Hills resident, continues as a member of IndyCar’s three-member stewards committee which decides race penalties. Luyendyk said side-to-side race contact typically won’t be called a foul. “You’ve got to let them race,” he said.



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