AUSTIN, Texas — From the time the first piles of dirt and rock were moved to start paving a new Formula One track in Texas, the owners of the Circuit of the Americas eyed a future with IndyCar.
It may have taken longer than fans had hoped, but they finally have one. And with the first IndyCar Classic this weekend, the mission now is to develop what organizers hope will be the second-biggest race of the IndyCar calendar.
"I think it can happen," track President Bobby Epstein said. "It just has to get bigger every year."
Epstein has insisted the IndyCar Classic will make a splash in its debut as the second race of the 2019 season, including a unique $100,000 bonus if the driver who wins the pole position also wins the race. The drivers first learned of the bonus on Thursday.
"Sweet!" James Hinchcliffe said while wringing his hands at the prospect. "That will be a nice bottle of wine."
Built for Formula One, the 3.41-mile Circuit of the Americas opened in 2012 and has catered primarily to the European-based racing series F1 and MotoGP, hosting the U.S. Grand Prix and the Grand Prix of the Americas, respectively, every year. While Epstein also wanted to host IndyCar, the Austin track had been frozen out by a geographic exclusivity clause the American series had in its contract with Texas Motor Speedway just three hours north in Fort Worth.
The restriction frustrated some fans, but it also gave the Circuit of the Americas time to mature as a track and gain exposure as a global and national destination for drivers and fans, Epstein said.
Relations between the two Texas tracks had been touchy for years, but now that both host IndyCar races about 10 weeks apart, Epstein sees no reason why both can't thrive.
"Their heath is as important to the health of racing as ours is," Epstein said. "They didn't really roll out the welcome mat because they didn't know what we would become. Everybody has the right to be protective of their investment. (But) I don't think their success comes at our loss and I would hope they feel the same way."
Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage said he wants the IndyCar Classic to be a hit.
"I would expect their crowd to top 100,000 people. It's a new thing, a novelty, and for their first visit there they should draw a huge crowd," Gossage said. "When we first ran IndyCar, we drew well over 100,000 people for the race for many years. That kind of success Sunday will be good for all racing in Texas."
IndyCar has pushed to boost its new track's profile in the off-season, hosting its preseason media days and two days of testing here in February. Several drivers were already familiar with the circuit, having turned laps in F1 or in private visits in years past. Andretti Autosports' Alexander Rossi, Arrow Schmidt Peterson's Marcus Ericsson and Carlin's Max Chilton all raced in Austin in F1. Ericsson finished 10th at the U.S. Grand Prix last year.
Ericsson said the F1 experience is of little value in his new series.
"I had all my reference points and did the first round (of practice) and it didn't really work," Ericsson said. "The Indy car today is very different to drive with grip and power steering. Things that worked in an F1 car don't really work in an Indy car."
The most tantalizing aspect for the former F1 drivers is returning with a chance to win. Rossi had little chance of even making the podium when he raced the U.S. Grand Prix for Marussia in 2015. Rossi finished 12th that year after eight other cars retired and still was more than 1 minute, 15 seconds off the winning pace.
Since joining IndyCar, Rossi is a five-time race winner, including the 2016 Indianapolis 500, and finished second in the championship last season. Rossi finished fifth in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 10, a race won by Team Penske's Josef Newgarden.
"When I've come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing there really wasn't any chance," Rossi said. "To able to come in here this weekend, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as anybody to win the race, is pretty cool. There's almost unfinished business box we'd like to tick here."
NOTES: Ed Carpenter Racing's Ed Jones has been cleared to race Sunday after dislocating his left ring finger when his car made contact with the wall in St. Petersburg. Jones met with a hand surgeon in Miami and had the finger splinted. He was cleared after a meeting with IndyCar Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows. ... Indy Lights 2018 champion Patricio O'Ward of Mexico, who abruptly left Harding-Steinbrenner Racing in February, makes his IndyCar season debut this week after signing a 13-race deal with Carlin. O'Ward finished ninth at Sonoma last year in his first IndyCar start, but didn't take part in preseason testing and missed the race in St. Petersburg.
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