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Lotus and Ferrari among those already brimming with confidence

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We were greeted on day one by the sight of an almost full F1 paddock. Nearly 100 mammoth transporter and hospitality trucks, representing all of the 2013 teams and practically all of the drivers.

Everyone we spoke to from teams were pumped and ready to have a very serious four-day test, in preparation for the first race roughly three weeks away. They put in hundreds of miles of data collection, aero, drive train, drivability, reliability and most important of all, learning all they could about the new Pirelli tires, which this year have different construction and compounds, designed to degrade quicker, and they did. Leigh and I were talking to Mark Webber in the Red Bull hospitality center and he was not a huge fan. He had great difficulty in reading the tire wear and performance and thought there was a very narrow window of usability. Jenson Button on the other hand said he thought they were easier to come to grips with, no pun intended, and would be easier to understand. Unlike his MP428, which he had great reservations about, in spite of the fact that his new teammate Mexican Sergio Perez set the fastest time of the four days, Button wound up 11th.

The only new car at this the second test was the Williams, unveiled on the Monday. It was supposed to be just an evolution of last year’s car, but according to Dickie Stanford (the team manager who spent a long time with Leigh and I) it is really all new. He told us both drivers, Pastor Maldonado and newcomer Valtteri Bottas said the car was markedly better than the 2012 model. The Williams team ended up with the most laps 367, finishing 8th and 10th on the time sheet, but both less than a second off the fastest. The last day was cold and damp and between them the two did 36 laps with no time, just pit stop practice.

Ferrari, compared to this time last year, looked really good. Fernando Alonso pounded around for three days ,with 110, 76 and 97 laps. I’m sure he slept very well. He topped the time sheets on day three, with a time that kept him second over the four days. He did a lot of drive through laps which must tell them something, though Leigh and I couldn’t figure it out. Alonso also did a tremendous amount of practice starts at the exit of pit lane, as did most of the drivers. Felipe Massa drew the short straw, only running on day four, which was cold and damp, even so he managed 80 laps. The team must be headed to the next test on Thursday with so much confidence compared to last year.

The Lotus team too must be very confident going forward. Romain Grosjean ended up 4th overall and Kimi Raikkonen was 7th. Kimi took the first two days, on day one he was parked for hours with data logging problems. Lotus press officer Andy Stobart told us that they have reverted to last year’s system, temporarily. The second day Kimi had Gear box troubles, again in the garage for some time. Romain had pretty trouble free days doing 160 fast laps. We spoke to the team principal Eric Boullier and he seemed very confidant and pleased with his boys. He said that Kimi is Kimi and needs treating in a way that is a bit special, he is also satisfied that Grosjean will have a much less troubled year than last.

Leigh and I were lucky enough to spend some time with Christian Horner, who I have known since he was a schoolboy. He is a very smart guy and plays his cards extremely close to his vest. Neither of his drivers were particularly fast, but no one seemed concerned. We also spoke to John Wheatley, the team manager, and Kenny Handkammer, the chief mechanic, all of whom seemed very upbeat even though Sebastian Vettel ended up 5th and Mark Webber was 13th. They covered two hundred miles less than Williams or Ferrari. However on the last day when most teams were practicing pit stops, Red Bull reeled off a number of wheel changes in 2.1 seconds, staggeringly fast. The fastest race stop last year was Jenson Button with a 2.31 second. Kenny Handkammer was pretty pleased with that. He wanted a picture of himself with Leigh and I which he then tweeted, saying he was with his friends from NBC and racing legend David Hobbs, very flattering coming from someone like that.

The big change for this year is of course Lewis Hamilton moving to Mercedes and what it will do for him and them. On the first day, Nico Rosberg did the driving and they had a lot of unspecified troubles, spending some time in the garage. Despite that, Rosberg did the fastest lap of day one. Hamilton took over on day two and had essentially a trouble-free day turning 121 laps winding up 4th. He was having gear box troubles out on the track and we could hear him struggling. On day four Hamilton took the fast time in cold and damp conditions. They were never able to match the best times of the test but nevertheless look competitive.

The Sauber, particularly in the hands of Nico Hulkenberg looked very promising ending up third overall only three-tenths off. His old team Force India looked strong too Adrian Sutil looked very good but is not yet confirmed for the team; only Paul Di Resta is. They also tried Jules Bianchi but he did not drive until day 4 when conditions were at their worst. The Marussia machine only driven by Max Chilton was consistently faster than the new Caterham in the hands of Giedo Van de Garde and Charles Pic, both new to the team, always, in my opinion, a bad move with a new car no one is able to tell whether it’s the car or the driver.

Now testing is just that, testing. Impossible at this stage to really tell the relative strengths of the teams.

We can tell that Ferrari is ahead of where they were this time last year and Williams seems ahead. Red Bull … who knows? On time they are not there, however I’m sure they are very well aware that they are going to be strong, McLaren also looks good, but Jenson struggled badly last year mid-season and looks a bit as if he’s headed that way now. Mercedes? Hamilton has got to be worth half a second over Nico and that might put them in the ball park. We’ll know more next Sunday when the final test ends, but the real test will be P1 at Melbourne in March. See you there.

David Hobbs is the F1 analyst for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MrDavidHobbs.

Hinchcliffe on NASCAR AMERICA, on pole: “It was surreal” (VIDEO)

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The polesitter for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, James Hinchcliffe, checked in with Dave Briggs and Parker Kligerman on Tuesday’s episode of NASCAR AMERICA to recap his incredible comeback and his amazing qualifying run courtesy of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team.

A fighter her whole life, Shirley Muldowney faces biggest battle yet

Shirley Muldowney
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If she hadn’t of achieved success in drag racing, legendary Shirley Muldowney would have made one hell of a fighter.

After all, it was in her genes.

If they had tangled in a ring, Ronda Rousey would have had nothing on Muldowney in her prime.

Muldowney’s father, Belgium Benedict Roque – nicknamed “Tex Rock” – was a taxi driver by day and a semi-pro boxer of note at night in and around Shirley’s hometown of Schenectady, New York.

It was almost prophetic that on an otherwise nondescript June night in 1940, Belgium would win his next-to-last fight by TKO, rushed home to pick up wife Mae, and a short time later in a local hospital, Shirley would enter the world.

And from that point, not only was a drag racing legend born, her reputation as an oftentimes hard-headed fighter of a different kind was born. She would go on to fight bullies in school, drag racing officials and opponents who looked down upon her with disdain because she was a woman in a “man’s sport,” and even race fans who were obviously no fans of hers that would call her every vile, disgusting, sexist and profane word in the book.

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Shirley Muldowney (Photo: Rob Geiger)

All because she was “a girl.”

All Muldowney ever wanted was a chance to prove herself, that she was every bit as good as any male drag racer. And you know what? She did just that, becoming the first woman to earn a professional drag racing license, the first woman to win a national event, the first woman to win a major racing championship and the first woman to win three NHRA Top Fuel titles (and a fourth in the rival American Hot Rod Association).

Muldowney raced until her retirement at the end of the 2003 season, a career that spanned more than four decades, perhaps as much as a million miles of barnstorming to grudge match races in the U.S. and Canada, and overcame a near-fatal crash in 1984.

They even made a movie about her life, the still popular “Heart Like A Wheel.”

Now, Shirley is in the biggest fight yet of her life – and it will be fought not on four wheels, but on a surgical bed.

MORE: BREAKING NEWS: Legendary NHRA driver Shirley Muldowney to undergo cancer surgery

Early Wednesday morning at a Charlotte, North Carolina hospital, the 75-year-old Muldowney will don a hospital gown, be rolled into an operating room, will be anesthetized and wake up more than five hours later – minus her right lung.

Muldowney has Stage 2 lung cancer, discovered only recently. According to various online research studies, Stage 2 cancer victims only have about a 30 percent chance of still being alive five years after surgery.

But this is not just another cancer statistic or unlucky victim. This is Shirley Roque Muldowney. All her fighting over the last seven decades has been just a warm-up for the bout she is about to undergo.

Yet knowing Shirley as I have for more than 30 years, she’s going into this next journey of her life in the same way she’s described herself to me over the years: “a tough broad.”

She has to be scared – even the most fearless shudder when the “C” word is mentioned – but I’ve never, ever seen Muldowney let her guard down and show fear. (Well, once, which I’ll get to shortly.)

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Shirley Muldowney in her prime and at her favorite racetrack, Lucas Oil Raceway, home of the NHRAs biggest annual race, the U.S. Nationals. (Photo: Auto Imagery)

Ironically, when I first met her in 1983 at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis – which began a 15-year stint as USA Today’s first NHRA drag racing writer – it was I who was scared.

Growing up on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side and being in more than my share of fights (I was usually the one picked upon, much like Muldowney), I also learned not to be afraid of anything.

But Muldowney’s reputation indeed scared me. I heard she was not only tough with fellow racers, but also with the media.

When Shirley’s PR person, Francine Lippsman, approached me to interview her, I was apprehensive but still went along.

Within five minutes of meeting Muldowney, all the rumors and stories of her being this quarter-mile ogre were quickly dispelled. She couldn’t have been more pleasant, more accommodating, more patient.

That day was the start of a long friendship. As a reporter, you’re supposed to be objective, but I can honestly say that of all the thousands of athletes across all varieties of sports that I’ve covered and interviewed over the last 35-plus years, I would count those that made the biggest impression upon me on one hand.

There’d be the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton, Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, racers Tony Stewart and John Force … and Shirley Muldowney.

A young Shirley Muldowney (Photo courtesy Rob Geiger)
A young Shirley Muldowney (Photo courtesy Rob Geiger)

I fondly remember all the years and countless interviews I had with Shirley. I remember even more instances where we just shot the bull, not for publication. I remember how she never was politically correct – she ALWAYS said what was on her mind, good or bad, in gentile language or interspersed with more than a few expletives.

I remember how, when she was at her fiery best, she told numerous competitors and even NHRA officials – both behind their back and to their face – to “(eff) off.” I remember when she was so fed up with the NHRA and its politics, even after her three championships, that she pulled up stakes and spent several years racing in the rival International Hot Rod Association.

I can’t count the number of female drag racers over the years that have considered Shirley as either their role model or mentor. Reigning two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders, Pro Stock Motorcycle star Angelle Sampey and even Brittany and John Force – daughters of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force – all cite Muldowney as having a profound impact on their careers.

Behind the wheel of her hot pink dragster, Muldowney blazed the path for all female drag racers, and they have not overlooked or underscored the fact that had it not been for what she went through in her career, they might not be doing what they are today in their own careers.

On a more light note, and even though she has a grown son, I also fondly remember Shirley’s “baby,” her pride and joy, a little mixed breed dog named “Skippy,” who followed her from track to track for more than 15 years.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 27: Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney (R) and NHRA driver Larry Dixon (L) speak with the media, during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, held at University Hilton on January 27, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney (R) and NHRA driver Larry Dixon (L) a few years ago in Charlotte. Dixon recently beat throat cancer, while Muldowney will have surgery for lung cancer on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

I admit, since hearing of Shirley’s condition and pending surgery earlier today, I’ve been thinking non-stop of her. I’m praying for her like I would pray for a close relative.

Which leads me to a story that only three people really know: Shirley, fellow drag racing legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and myself. Please indulge me to tell it to you now.

It was January 25, 1994. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. It was eight days after the terrible Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley area, which killed nearly 60 people and injured over 8,500.

I had been scheduled to interview Prudhomme at his shop a few miles south of Northridge. I admit, having been in the 5.5 magnitude aftershock of the Whittier, California earthquake in 1987, I really was hesitant to go back out the West Coast. But I put away my fear, flew out there and found my way to Snake’s shop that morning.

When I arrived at Prudhomme’s shop, I recall seeing a building maybe 500 feet away that was missing a roof and 1 ½ walls. It was leaning precariously. Meanwhile, Prudhomme’s shop had just minimal damage. Go figure.

After more than an hour of interviewing him, Prudhomme asked if I’d like to take a ride. He wanted to show me the devastation wrought by the earthquake.

We drove for about 20 minutes or so. I was astounded, never having seen such destruction before. It looked as if a proverbial bomb had gone off.

As we passed by the heavily damaged Northridge Fashion Center and Cal State Northridge University, Prudhomme suggested we stop at a little non-descript house less than a block from the campus.

“Let’s go see Shirley,” Prudhomme said with a smile on his face. A few minutes later and unannounced, we rang her doorbell and she answered. While she was happy to see us and greeted us warmly, I could see something was wrong. Shirley just wasn’t Shirley.

Finally, she said something to the effect of “I’m scared s***less. I want to go back to (her adopted state of) Michigan. I can’t stand it here. I’ve gotta get out of California. I’m really afraid that there’s going to be another earthquake. If that wasn’t the ‘big one,’ it sure as hell was pretty damn close.”

After all that she had to endure in her life, for all the put-downs and beat-downs and insults, she still managed to go on to become one of the greatest drag racers in history.

But at this particular moment, one thing was very, very clear.

For the first time in her life, Shirley Muldowney was really, truly scared.

She not just showed fear, she was essentially petrified. It was so uncharacteristic of her usual in-control-of-everything personality.

She admitted she hadn’t slept well the last seven nights – especially after she was knocked out of bed at 4:30 a.m. PT when the quake first hit on Jan. 17, 1994.

I still recall how Muldowney shook slightly when she showed some of the structural damage her house sustained in the quake. I can guarantee it wasn’t exactly the kind of tour of her house that she was used to giving.

Just a few months later, Muldowney stayed true to her word: she was on her way back to the Wolverine State. She put California in her rearview mirror and she went back to having the “no fear” aura that made her famous.

Hell, if the only thing in life that had ever scared her was an earthquake, then given Shirley’s makeup, cancer doesn’t stand a chance with the self-described “tough broad.”

She’ll not only kick cancer’s ass, she’ll beat it too, just like she did with virtually every driver who ever dared challenge her for supremacy of the quarter-mile.

When she is wheeled into that operating room Wednesday, Muldowney will once again take the gloves off, ready to fight for herself once again – just like she’s done her whole life.

The “big C” doesn’t stand a chance.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Here are your Indy 500/Carb Day times this weekend on NBCSN

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Our colleagues at ABC have the race telecast on Sunday, but NBCSN still has plenty of coverage from Indianapolis this weekend including most of Friday.

Thursday we’re all over Monaco for first and second practice for the Grand Prix. Then Carb Day, we head to Indianapolis for 500 coverage, which also includes Indy Lights and the pit stop competition, before the 90-minute NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special.

During the latter show, the special, Marty Snider, Townsend Bell, and Ray Evernham co-host coverage from Indianapolis Motor Speedway while Leigh Diffey, Steve Matchett, David Hobbs, and Will Buxton contribute on location from Monaco.

The full release and this weekend’s full slate of motorsports content across NBC Sports Group properties can be found here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

NBCSN, the cable home of IndyCar, will provide six hours of Indianapolis 500 Carb Day coverage, beginning Friday at 11 a.m. ET. In addition, NBCSN will air a live presentation of the Indy Lights Freedom 100 race at noon ET on Friday. Indy 500 coverage concludes on Saturday with the Indy 500 Festival Parade at 10 p.m. ET.

This weekend’s coverage includes IndyCar on NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell, who qualified in fourth place for this weekend’s 100th running of the Indy 500. Bell will be driving for Andretti Autosport, and this will mark his 10th appearance at the Indy 500. Bell’s best Indy 500 finish was fourth position in the 2009 race. Last year, he finished in 14th place.

Kevin Lee will lead NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, filling in for Diffey who will be in Monaco, alongside analysts Bell and Paul Tracy. Jon Beekhuis, Marty Snider, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will handle the pits.

Date Program Time (ET) Network
Fri., May 23 Indy 500 Carb Day 11 a.m. NBCSN
Indy Lights – Freedom 100 Noon NBCSN
Indy 500 Carb Day 1 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR America Motorsports Special 3:30 p.m. NBCSN
Sat., May 24 Indy 500 Festival Parade 10 p.m. NBCSN

Here are your Monaco GP TV times, part of packed racing weekend

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This weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix takes place from the streets of Monte Carlo. The majority of the NBC Sports Group Formula 1 team is on site, as part of a massive weekend of racing coverage across the NBC Sports family.

Meanwhile two of our other race series properties – the Verizon IndyCar Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – are also running this weekend. The 100th Indianapolis 500 is on ABC (Carb Day coverage is on NBCSN) and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 is on FOX.

Here’s a look ahead to all times and schedule for F1 at Monaco this weekend. The full release can be found at the NBC Sports Group Press Box website, linked here.

For race coverage on Sunday, check your local listings, as some affiliates (Indianapolis, traditionally) opt for local programming including Indianapolis 500 pre-race content.

NBC Sports presents live coverage of the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix, one of the world’s most iconic racing events from picturesque Monte Carlo, this Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC. The F1 Monaco Grand Prix will highlight more than 50 hours of coverage on NBC and NBCSN surrounding the “Biggest Day In Motorsports,” spanning Formula One, the Verizon IndyCar Series, and NASCAR.

NBC Sports Group is the U.S. television home of motorsports, providing exclusive Formula One coverage, exclusive cable coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series on NBCSN, and the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, as well as 19 XFINITY Series events. NBC’s coverage of the F1 Monaco Grand Prix kicks off the “Biggest Day In Motorsports” this Sunday, followed by the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 (ABC) and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 (FOX).

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX – SUNDAY AT 7:30 A.M. ET ON NBC – COVERAGE BEGINS THURSDAY AT 8 A.M. ET ON NBCSN WITH PRACTICE 2

NBC Sports Group begins its comprehensive live coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday morning at 4 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra with Practice 1, followed by NBCSN’s presentation of Practice 2 on Thursday at 8 a.m. ET. Live Extra will stream Practice 3 on Saturday morning at 5 a.m. ET, leading into live qualifying coverage on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET. Sunday’s coverage begins at 7 a.m. ETwith F1 Countdown on NBCSN, leading into live race coverage at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC.

Lead F1 announcer Leigh Diffey will call this weekend’s action, and will be joined by veteran analyst and former racecar driver David Hobbs, analyst and former race mechanic for the Benetton F1 team Steve Matchett, and F1 insider Will Buxton, all on-site from Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Pre-race coverage on NBC and NBCSN will include interviews with 18-year-old driver Max Verstappen (Red Bull), who became the youngest F1 race winner ever with his Spanish Grand Prix win on May 14, as well as Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, who considers Monaco to be his home race, and is in search of his fourth consecutive Monaco Grand Prix win. Rosberg and teammate Lewis Hamilton will look to rebound from their performances at the Spanish Grand Prix, when the two collided on the first lap and were forced to retire from the race.

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX TELECAST SCHEDULE
Date Program Time (ET) Network
Thu., May 26 F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 1 4 a.m. NBC Sports Live Extra
F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 2 8 a.m. NBCSN
Fri., May 27 F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 2 (Encore) 12 a.m. NBCSN
Sat., May 28 F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 3 5 a.m. NBC Sports Live Extra
F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Qualifying 8 a.m. NBCSN
/DRIVE on NBC Sports – Monaco (Encore) 3 p.m. NBCSN
F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) 11:30 p.m. NBCSN
Sun., May 29 F1 Countdown 7 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Monaco Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBC
F1 Extra 10 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Monaco Grand Prix (Encore) 10:30 p.m. NBCSN
F1 Extra 1 p.m. NBCSN
GP2 – Monaco 1:30 p.m. NBCSN