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Does IndyCar need a juicy rivalry?

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We all love rivalries — Cowboys vs. Redskins, Celtics vs. Lakers, Yankees vs. Red Sox, etc. — and IZOD IndyCar Series fans would appreciate a legitimate one in their sport as well. But does such a thing exist for them right now?

As NASCAR can tell you, controversy sells. And while IndyCar maintains a loyal following for its action-packed races, it would appear to be lacking in the drama department.

Now, there have been incidents in recent years that have drawn attention. Perhaps the one that comes off the top of most race fans’ heads is Will Power’s double-bird salute to Race Control at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2011, a gesture that made sure the series’ one-and-done return to New England would always be remembered.

But those incidents never really evolved into something bigger. They happened, then came the initial attention that eventually died off, and then everyone involved kind of moved on. So does IndyCar need more “black hats” to create feuds that can yield longer-lasting buzz?

Perhaps. But here’s the question: How many in the paddock would relish being the bad guy?

“That’s the thing, it doesn’t sit well on just anybody’s shoulders,” Dario Franchitti told the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer on Thursday. “[Paul Tracy] loved being the villain. I’ve been portrayed as the villain for some things I’ve done in races, but it’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with. Some guys love it, but it just doesn’t sit well with me.”

Graham Rahal, who got in a short feud with Marco Andretti after the two crashed last year at Long Beach, thinks that the sport’s management has an influence on why rivalries haven’t quite taken root within IndyCar — and that they could do their part to change that.

“Drama is part of it, but our sport in many ways tries to be too clean,” Rahal said to the AP. “Not from the driver side, but from [management and race control], because anytime you did anything, even if it was small, it was a penalty. We need to let some of that go.

“I don’t want it to get dangerous, but if we want to build drama for the sport, then they need to help.”

BMW announces FIA WEC entry from 2018, Formula E partnership with Andretti

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BMW has announced that it will return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2018 after seven years away.

BMW last raced at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2011, but will now make its comeback as part of a realignment of its motorsport program.

This also includes a technical partnership with the MS Amlin Andretti team in Formula E from season three with a view to a works entry in the series from its fifth season.

“The strong pillars of the programme for the coming years will be the DTM, the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC), the cooperation with Andretti Formula E in the FIA Formula E Championship, the customer racing programme in the GT3 and GT4 categories, the promotion of talented young drivers, and the extremely challenging Dakar Rally,” a statement from BMW reads.

“The plan is for BMW to enter the FIA World Endurance Championship in the 2018 season. The highlight of this championship is the 24-hour race in Le Mans.

“BMW claimed overall victory there in 1999 with the open prototype BMW V12 LMR. The last time a BMW took its place on the grid at the endurance classic near the river Sarthe was in 2011: back then, the BMW M3 GT finished third in the LM GTE class.

“Since it was launched in 2012, the championship has enjoyed a positive development, forged new paths in many regards, and won a lot of fans.

“Further details, such as the model of car to be used and the team responsible for the car, will be confirmed and announced over the coming months.”

BMW motorsport director Jens Marquardt added: “Starting with the 2018 season, we want to further expand our activities in GT racing and compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“This obviously also includes our return to Le Mans, which we are particularly looking forward to. The way the WEC has developed so well makes us confident that there is a big future for GT racing.”

Of its involvement in Formula E with Andretti, BMW confirmed a long-rumored technical partnership that has already begun ahead of the all-electric series’ third season.

“The cooperation with Andretti Formula E is initially set to run for two seasons. It incorporates, for example, cooperation at engineer level and the mutual use of resources.

“Depending on the general development of the racing series, a works involvement is envisaged as of the series’ season five, 2018/2019, provided the conditions and circumstances are right.

“As part of this commitment, BMW Motorsport will provide its works driver António Félix da Costa as a driver for Andretti Formula E. The Portuguese, who has featured on the top step of the DTM podium with BMW and has already tasted victory in Formula E, will contest the entire 2016/17 FIA Formula E Championship.

“As well as the new partnership, BMW i will remain the “Official Vehicle Partner” of Formula E. This partnership allows BMW i to present the plug-in hybrid BMW i8, as the Safety Car, and the fully-electric BMW i3, as the Medical Car, in some of the largest cities in the world.”

You can read the entire statement from BMW by clicking here.

NHRA: After first 2 rounds, most Countdown battles tighten

With five wins and having led the points for much of this season, Ron Capps is on target for his first career Funny Car championship in 2016.
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With two rounds of the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs now in the books, the point standings have tightened up for the most part.

The closest battles are in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle. But that doesn’t mean the Funny Car or Pro Stock standings are any less competitive.

Let’s break things down in each respective class following what happened in this past weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals near St. Louis:

In Top Fuel, two-time and defending champion Antron Brown has his hands full with a stout challenge from Doug Kalitta.

Brown, who dominated last year’s Countdown en route to the championship, holds just a 13-point edge over Kalitta heading into this weekend’s midpoint of the Countdown, the Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway.

After three runner-up finishes over the years, Kalitta is potentially in the best position he ever has been to earn his first championship in 20 years on the NHRA national tour. Trust me, Brown hears Kalitta’s footsteps, and they just got a lot louder after Sunday’s race near St. Louis.

Several other drivers are further back, but they’re far from out of the running. Eight-time champion Tony Schumacher is third, 54 points back. Sunday’s winner, Shawn Langdon, jumped up to fourth in the points, just 77 points behind.

Brittany Force and Steve Torrence are 91 and 97 points behind Brown, respectively, followed by seventh and eighth place holders J.R. Todd (-106) and Richie Crampton (-131), who qualified No. 1 this past weekend.

Unfortunately, two drivers have each struggled in the first two Countdown races: Leah Pritchett (-151) and Clay Millican (-174). Unless they get their game back on track, their Countdown hopes could essentially be over far before the season-ending race in Pomona, California.

Here’s how the points stack up heading into Maple Grove:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,258; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,245; 3.  Tony Schumacher, 2,204; 4.  Shawn Langdon, 2,181; 5.  Brittany Force, 2,167; 6.  Steve Torrence, 2,161; 7.  J.R. Todd, 2,152; 8.  Richie Crampton, 2,127; 9.  Leah Pritchett, 2,107; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,084.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Funny Car, Ron Capps reached Sunday’s semifinals, protecting the lead he’s had for much of this season.

With a class-high five wins thus far this season, Capps holds a 48-point edge over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. and leads another teammate, Jack Beckman, by 70 points.

Beckman significantly closed the gap on Capps by winning Sunday at St. Louis – jumping from eighth place to third.

Just 22 points separate fourth-ranked John Force (-74), defending champion Del Worsham (-84) and Matt Hagan (-96). Dipping in the standings are the other two John Force Racing Funny Car drivers, Robert Hight (-114) and Courtney Force (-124), with Tim Wilkerson sitting ninth (-129).

Alexis DeJoria rounds out the 1o-driver Funny Car Countdown and has struggled in the first two races, leaving her 205 points behind Capps – the third-biggest points spread between a driver and a leader in any of the four pro classes.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,273; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,225; 3.  Jack Beckman, 2,203; 4.  John Force, 2,199; 5.  Del Worsham, 2,189; 6.  Matt Hagan, 2,177; 7.  Robert Hight, 2,159; 8.  Courtney Force, 2,149; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,144; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,068.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Pro Stock, Alex Laughlin pulled off a stunning win Sunday at St. Louis. Not only did Laughlin fail to qualify for the Countdown, Sunday’s triumph was the first of his Pro Stock career.

And Laughlin’s win somewhat shook up the Pro Stock standings – opening them up rather than closing the gap – leaving the largest spread between first and tenth in any of the four pro classes.

KB Racing holds a stranglehold on the top three spots with points leader Jason Line, Greg Anderson (-63) and Bo Butner (-87).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the bottom half of the Pro Stock Countdown field has struggled in the first two races: Sixth-ranked Chris McGaha (-175), Allen Johnson (-183), and Drew Skillman (-184), but especially five-time champion Jeg Coughlin (-226) and two-time defending champion Erica Enders (-258).

After two outstanding seasons, Enders has had a very rough campaign in 2016, with several first round exits in the first 20 races that put her – and have kept her – behind the eight-ball. She failed to qualify for the first Countdown race at Charlotte and suffered yet another first-round exit at St. Louis.

Unless Enders can somehow bounce back and win her first race of the season – and then some more – in the next couple of races, she mathematically could be eliminated from the Countdown as early as this weekend at Maple Grove or Round 4 of the playoffs on Oct. 16 at Texas.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,310; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,247; 3.  Bo Butner, 2,223; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 2,185; 5.  Shane Gray, 2,167; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,135; 7.  Allen Johnson, 2,127; 8.  Drew Skillman, 2,126; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,084; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,052.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, we see the tightest championship battle of all four pro classes thus far.

Just 17 points separate the top three riders: defending champion and five-time champ Andrew Hines, Angelle Sampey (-2) and Charlotte winner Chip Ellis (-17). And St. Louis winner Jerry Savoie – an alligator farmer from Louisiana – took a big chomp out of Hines’ lead, jumping up to fourth place, just 42 points behind.

Former champion Eddie Krawiec isn’t far behind in fifth place (-76).

The remaining five riders are all within striking distance, from sixth-ranked LE Tonglet IV (-122) to Hector Arana Jr. (-145), Hector Arana (-153), Cory Reed (-155) and Matt Smith (-164).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Andrew Hines, 2,260; 2.  Angelle Sampey, 2,258; 3.  Chip Ellis, 2,243; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 2,218; 5.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,184; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,138; 7.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,115; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,107; 9.  Cory Reed, 2,105; 10.  Matt Smith, 2,096.

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NHRA: Ron Capps, Doug Kalitta one step closer to first championships

Can Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta, left, and Funny Car pilot Ron Capps both earn their first championships this season?
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As the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship moves into its third round, Doug Kalitta and Ron Capps have one word on their mind.

Well, two words, actually, but one will equal the second.

The first word is “sixteen” – as in the number of rounds of competition that remain this season.

And, if they successfully get through most of those 16 rounds beating the guy or girl in the other lane, that second word is “one” – as in finishing the season No. 1 as champions in their respective NHRA drag racing classes: Top Fuel for Kalitta and Funny Car for Capps.

“One” has even more significance for both drivers as the have each toiled on the straight-line for 20 and 22 years apiece, yet both have never ended a season with a championship.

What’s more, Capps and Kalitta rank first and second for drivers with the most wins without a championship.

Now, with four races to go, they both feel strongly that it’s their time. They both have chances to move four steps closer to that goal in this weekend’s Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway.

“Each race in this Countdown is important,” Kalitta said. “There are only 24 rounds of racing (in the six rounds), so you try to excel at every track.

“We would like to end this three-race string with a race win and carry that momentum into the final three events on the schedule.”

Added Capps, “(Maple Grove has) been very good to me, but I’ve never won there. I know it will be a lot cooler and (crew chief Rahn) Tobler has shown what this hot rod can do in conditions like that.”

Capps leads the Funny Car ranks – as he has done for much of this season – and has qualified no lower than third nor finished any lower than the semifinals in each of the first two Countdown events.

He leads Don Schumacher Racing teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. by 48 points and Jack Beckman, who beat Capps in the semifinals and went on to win the Funny Car class Sunday at Gateway Motorsports Park, by 70 points.

“We have such a great, competitive field of drivers and you can’t take anything for granted,” Capps said. “This is one of the most funs I’ve had, but it’s hard to enjoy it because you’re so engulfed in this Countdown. Fans are having a blast.”

Capps has 50 career Funny Car wins, including five this season. He also has finished runner-up in the standings four different seasons.

“It’s just one race at a time, and that’s all we’re focused on,” Capps said. “It is fun to be able to do that and have a racecar that I can trust will be as quick as anybody on raceday. It’s going to be a lot of fun the rest of the way.”

And then there’s Kalitta, who like Capps, would also like nothing better than to finally win his first championship.

Kalitta moved closer to that goal this weekend at St. Louis. He’s now just 13 points behind Top Fuel standings leader and defending champion Antron Brown, who is also seeking his third championship in the last five seasons.

But Kalitta, who has three wins in 2016 (Houston, Atlanta and Topeka) and 41 in his career (fifth among Top Fuel’s winningest drivers), would like nothing more than to overtake Brown and hold on for the championship.

“At this point we can control our own destiny, so we are just taking each race as its own and doing our best,” Kalitta said. “Every race we have left is a little different, and you just have to be prepared.

“I have the best team and group of people surrounding me, and I am excited to see what we can do.”

Like Capps, Kalitta knows all too well what it’s like to finish runner-up to someone else in a season, having finished second three times in his career.

“My team is incredibly focused,” Kalitta said. “This Mac Tools/DeWalt FlexVolt Toyota is running strong and we are limiting mistakes. We are right there and know we have what it takes to compete with all of the other teams out here that are chasing that title.

“You just have to stay focused on your job. I have a great crew and their job doesn’t change, and neither does mine. You have to be ready to go regardless of conditions.”

************************

DODGE NHRA NATIONALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals, the 21st of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the third of six races in the NHRAMello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.

WHERE: Maple Grove Raceway, Mohnton, Pa. Track is located off the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Exit 298), 10 miles south of Reading, Pa.

COURSE:   Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 548 feet above sea level; Track direction is north to south.

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 29-Oct. 2

SCHEDULE:

THURSDAY, Sept. 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

FRIDAY, Sept. 30 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:15 and 4:15 p.m.

SATURDAY, Oct. 1 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 11:15 a.m. and 2:45 p.m.

SUNDAY, Oct. 2 – Pre-race ceremonies, 11 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at noon.

TELEVISION: Friday, Sept. 30, FS1 will televise one hour of live qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, Oct. 2, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 2 a.m. (ET).

Sunday, Oct. 2, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage starting at2 p.m. (ET).

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Jack Beckman, Funny Car; Chris McGaha, Pro Stock; Andrew Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES: John Force, FC, 7; Angelle Sampey, PSM, 6; Tony Schumacher, TF, 5; Jeg Coughlin, PS, 4; Warren Johnson, PS, 4.

TRACK RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.701 sec. by Antron Brown, Oct. ’12; 334.15 mph by Shawn Langdon, Oct. ’12

Funny Car – 3.897 sec. by Jack Beckman, Oct. ’15; 329.34 mph by Robert Hight, Oct. ’15

Pro Stock – 6.465 sec. by Erica Enders, Oct. ’14; 214.59 mph by Greg Anderson, Oct. ’15

Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. and 198.73 mph by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12

NATIONAL RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ’16, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

PS Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

************************

POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,258; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,245; 3.  Tony Schumacher, 2,204; 4.  Shawn Langdon, 2,181; 5.  Brittany Force, 2,167; 6.  Steve Torrence, 2,161; 7.  J.R. Todd, 2,152; 8.  Richie Crampton, 2,127; 9.  Leah Pritchett, 2,107; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,084.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,273; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,225; 3.  Jack Beckman, 2,203; 4.  John Force, 2,199; 5.  Del Worsham, 2,189; 6.  Matt Hagan, 2,177; 7.  Robert Hight, 2,159; 8.  Courtney Force, 2,149; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,144; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,068.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,310; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,247; 3.  Bo Butner, 2,223; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 2,185; 5.  Shane Gray, 2,167; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,135; 7.  Allen Johnson,

2,127; 8.  Drew Skillman, 2,126; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,084; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,052.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,260; 2.  Angelle Sampey, 2,258; 3.  Chip Ellis, 2,243; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 2,218; 5.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,184; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,138; 7.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,115; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,107; 9.  Cory Reed, 2,105; 10.  Matt Smith, 2,096.

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Column: Commending the NHRA for the clean house it keeps

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Sometimes, the most obvious things are the easiest to overlook.

I was speaking with a fellow reporter the other day and the conversation turned to how NHRA has had so few scandals compared to other sports over the last 25 years or so.

While other professional sports leagues have had more than their share of drug use, gun use, DUI’s, domestic violence and more, the NHRA – for the most part – has been relatively free of such sordid activities within its four major professional classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Granted, everyone is not a choirboy or choirgirl in the NHRA. There have been a few instances over the years that a rumor may have raised eyebrows, but for the most part, the teams and the sanctioning body have made sure that if there is a problem, they’ll police themselves and make sure the problem is corrected quickly.

The biggest scandal that the NHRA has faced in the last quarter-century came early in the 1990s when three-time Pro Stock champion Darrell Alderman pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.

The NHRA suspended Alderman for his off-track actions for nearly two seasons, but he eventually returned to competition after paying his debt to society on the federal level as well as to NHRA. He even won a third Pro Stock championship (1994) after returning to the sport’s good graces.

He’d go on to race for another decade before retiring from the sport.

“The NHRA made a very strong statement,” Alderman said in a January 3, 1992 statement after his suspension was first announced. “What I did was wrong and this is the penalty I have to pay.”

Alderman is a classic success story of someone who did wrong, admitted he was wrong and then did everything in his power to turn his life around – and he did.

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Since then, there have been no similar occurrences of significant wrongdoing within the NHRA and on as large of a scale as Alderman’s actions.

Sure, there have been occasional rumors at times, but few have been substantiated. That means either that the NHRA has kept a tight lid on indiscretions, or more likely, keeps a pretty darn clean house – certainly a much cleaner house than many other pro sports.

That’s why we don’t see or hear about some of the sport’s biggest stars — like John Force, Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown, Ron Capps and so many others — ever getting into trouble with either the law or the sanctioning body.

Admittedly, there was one case as recently as last season when a pro driver suddenly up and disappeared from his ride with a major team in the heat of the late summer part of the season.

Fans and media were told that driver was simply released from his contract, but the real reason – the abundance of allegations and rumors notwithstanding – was never officially revealed. There’s no need to rehash that now, as the driver has since returned part-time to racing in 2016, but in a different competition category.

But other than that, NHRA has had a very clean slate over the last 25 years – and that says a great deal about the sanctioning body’s integrity, ideology and how it watches out over its flock of drivers, crew chiefs, team owners and crewmembers.

It’s because of that clean housekeeping that we also rarely hear about cars failing to pass pre- or post-race inspection or see drivers or crew chiefs suspended for cheating.

A large part of why NHRA can be congratulated has to do with its family-friendly atmosphere. Perhaps more so than any other sport, the NHRA fosters an environment that sees families – including two, three and even four generations – not only being part of the sport, they also likely become and stay closer because of the sport, as well.

Think of how popular the NHRA’s Junior Dragster program has grown over the last 20 years. Several of today’s big stars, including Erica Enders and Leah Pritchett, started out in Junior Dragster racing with their families. They’re just a few of the many examples of today’s young drivers who got their start – with their families right beside them in the pits – in Junior Dragster competition.

As I said earlier, few major sports have the kind of clean track record that NHRA — and IndyCar, as well, I might add — have.

And while NASCAR runs a clean house for the most part, there have been a number of instances in the last decade of drivers, crew members and the like being suspended or penalized for indiscretions such as drug use or DUI’s.

Still, on a whole, motorsports – with NHRA at the forefront – has been a shining example that other pro sports leagues could learn a great deal from.

After all, from both my perspective as a reporter who has covered drag racing for over 30 years and you as a longtime fan of the sport, admit it: Wouldn’t you rather read about who won a race or set a national record then who was caught using drugs or got arrested for DUI or hitting their wife or girlfriend (or husband or boyfriend)?

I mean, the NHRA keeps such a clean house – and that we’ve become so used to it that we rarely think about it – until it comes up on rare occasion much like in the conversation I had with my friend last week.

Then again, maybe it has something to do with one of the key logistics of the sport: it’s a heck of a lot easier to stay on the straight-and-narrow both on a drag strip and in life.

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