49ers coach – and IndyCar team co-owner – Jim Harbaugh to drive Indy 500 pace car

Leave a comment

San Francisco 49ers head coach and Panther Racing co-owner Jim Harbaugh will drive the 2014 Chevy Corvette Stingray pace car and lead the field of 33 to the green flag at Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Harbaugh, who led the 49ers to last year’s NFC Championship and an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII, is a founding partner for Panther, the two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champions and a perennial threat at the Brickyard with four runner-up finishes in the last five “500s.”

“As a longtime racing fan and someone who has always followed the Indianapolis 500, the honor to drive the Pace Car comes as a tremendous thrill,” Harbaugh said in a release from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Doing it in the all-new 2014 Corvette Stingray makes it even better. It’s an iconic car leading an iconic race.”

Harbaugh is a well-known figure in Indianapolis thanks to a memorable run in the mid-1990s as quarterback of the Colts. According to the team, he first met Panther managing partner John Barnes shortly after he signed with the Colts in 1994. When Panther started racing in 1997, Harbaugh joined in as a partner.

To this day, Panther has run the No. 4 as a nod to the jersey he wore for the Colts and for the majority of his playing career. The coach and the team maintain a close relationship; last year, Harbaugh hosted Barnes, Panther driver J.R. Hildebrand and soldiers from the California National Guard on a visit to the Niners’ practice facility, and at the IndyCar race in Sonoma, California, Hildebrand ran a 49ers-themed paint job on his No. 4 National Guard Chevrolet.

“It’s always great for us to see Jim when he comes back to Indy for the race, and I don’t know too many people who love the Indianapolis 500 more than Jim Harbaugh,” Barnes said in a Panther release. “We’re unbelievably proud of all the success that he’s had in his playing and coaching career, and driving the Chevy pace car this Sunday is just another well-deserved accomplishment that we all know he’ll enjoy.”

Watch Friday’s Indianapolis 500 Carb Day (11 a.m. ET) online and on your mobile device.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
Leave a comment

Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”