Stat surprises through two IndyCar race weekends

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With St. Petersburg and Barber in the books, there’s a couple interesting nuggets to note from the first two rounds of the IZOD IndyCar Series season.

QUALIFYING SURPRISES

Three teams – Dragon Racing, KV Racing Technology, and Sam Schmidt’s teams – have seen the regarded “junior” driver outqualify their more experienced teammates in both races.

Since Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Hamilton) is regarded as one of the fastest young drivers in the series, it’s been surprising to see Tristan Vautier (Schmidt Peterson) outdo him on both occasions. Vautier is one of three drivers, along with Team Penske’s Will Power and Helio Castroneves, to qualify in the Firestone Fast Six both races.

Simona de Silvestro has rebounded nicely from her Lotus engine nightmare 2012 season and pushed Tony Kanaan at KV. Receiving less attention but no less noteworthy, Sebastian Saavedra (right) has outqualified Sebastien Bourdais by at least 12 positions the first two races, ending ninth each time.

One other qualifying stat of note: the first two races have seen JR Hildebrand, Ana Beatriz and Ed Carpenter each locked into the bottom three spots on the grid. In a field this tight, setup or car differences have made relatively small gaps of more than one second to the session leader look larger.

CLOSER MARGIN OF VICTORIES

Andretti Autosport’s winning drivers – James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay – have withstood pressure from Castroneves and Scott Dixon, respectively, to take the first two wins of the year.

Hinch’s St. Pete win came in at 1.0982 seconds, while last year Castroneves beat Dixon by 5.5292 seconds. At Barber, the MOV dropped from 3.3709 (2012, Power over Dixon) to 0.6363 of a second.

MARCO IMPROVING, BUT STILL HUNGRY

The re-focused Marco Andretti has only one less top-10 finish in the first two races (two) as he did the entire 2012 season. Still, with a win having eluded him since Iowa 2011, he’s itching to get back on the top step of the podium.

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”