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IndyCar drivers weigh risk, reward at exacting Road America

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — If someone built Road America today, it might look a lot different. The 4-mile, high-speed road course in central Wisconsin is a favorite among IndyCar drivers, earning favorable comparisons with historic tracks such as Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. But it can bite you, too. When compared with a newly build road course, such as Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas, Road America doesn't have nearly as much room for error.

"It's a track that has kept its character, stayed true to its roots," Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud said. "I mean, we love it. It's a very challenging racetrack. Probably one of the most challenging because if you make one mistake, it's like the old days. You're going to go off and crash. It's not like one of the new tracks where a mistake is just like a video game. I personally enjoy that."

Miss a turn at Circuit of the Americas, and a driver usually will have enough runoff room to recover and continue. Miss a turn in the wrong place at Road America in Sunday's IndyCar Rev Group Grand Prix, and a driver is likely to find a wall.

"There's no margin for error at all," Graham Rahal said. In keeping with the old-school spirit of Road America, Rahal's car is carrying a retro paint scheme this weekend that replicates a car formerly driven by his father, Bobby Rahal. But there's room for modern advances at Road America, too. This year, track officials added a new stretch of the impact-absorbing SAFER barrier in the high-speed Turn 11, also known as "the kink."

"We're thankful to the track to go ahead and do that," Alexander Rossi said. Added Rahal: "That's a great thing. For sure, from a safety perspective here, there's a lot here that could be improved. But it's a great first step."

Throw in some rain in the forecast on Sunday, and drivers could have their hands full. Even when it's dry, a track's layout changes the way drivers balance risk and reward. "You know that here, if you make a mistake, it's going to have consequences," Pagenaud said. "It might imperil your chances to win a race, even if it's in practice. Risk versus reward is very different."

On Saturday, Colton Herta became the youngest pole winner in IndyCar history, topping qualifying with a lap of 1 minute, 42.9920 seconds. At 19 years, 83 days, Herta broke the mark of 20 years, 90 days set by Rahal in 2009 at St. Petersburg.

Herta, the son of former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta, raced to his first career victory in Austin, Texas, this year. The pole also was the first for Harding-Steinbrenner Racing, the team co-owned by George Steinbrenner IV, grandson of the late New York Yankees owner.

Alexander Rossi will start second Sunday, followed by Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Rahal and Takuma Sato. Even beyond Road America, the risk-reward calculations that drivers make have been a topic of discussion in IndyCar this week after driver Max Chilton announced that he would not race on oval tracks the rest of this season. Because Road America is a road course, Chilton is back in the car this weekend. Chilton declined an interview request through a spokeswoman.

Oval tracks have the highest speeds — and highest risks. Driver Justin Wilson died at Pocono in 2015, and Dan Wheldon died at Las Vegas in 2011. Robert Wickens was partially paralyzed in a crash at Pocono last season.

Pagenaud didn't want to comment directly on Chilton's situation. But after traveling a similar path to Chilton's — growing up in Europe, where oval tracks are practically nonexistent — Pagenaud arrived at a different decision.

"There might be many, many reasons why he made that decision," Pagenaud said. "Personally, it's not a decision I would make. But I'm in a very different position — I'm with the best team, in the best car. I'm accomplished as a driver. I'm in a very different situation than he is."

Pagenaud acknowledged that he initially struggled with ovals early in his IndyCar career — so much that he would need treatment on his lower back because he was so tense while driving. "The desire overcomes fear," Pagenaud said. "Then you learn to keep your emotion in check. And fear is not there anymore. You're aware, but it's not a problem. And I think that's how I transformed it. My desire was to win the Indianapolis 500. My desire grew and grew and grew, and the fear went down. Now it's a normal thing."

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