Andretti Autosport driver Carlos Munoz of Colombia scratches his chin after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

IndyCar prospects take on the Brickyard in Freedom 100

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Friday’s Freedom 100 for the Firestone Indy Lights (Noon ET, NBC Sports Network) will feature only 11 cars on the starting grid, but there’s still racing’s ultimate form of bragging rights on the line: Victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Headlining the Freedom 100 field is Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz (pictured), who is also on the front row for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 in a fifth Andretti car. Munoz currently leads the FIL points and will seek to become the fourth driver to compete in both the 100 and the 500 on the same weekend (Sebastian Saavedra, Marty Roth, Jeff Simmons).

But Munoz will likely have to go through the four Schmidt Peterson Motorsports drivers — Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth and Indiana’s own Kyle O’Gara — in order to win his first race of the weekend. Sam Schmidt’s FIL operation is the series’ resident dynasty, and in the Freedom 100, the team has won an astonishing seven times with six different drivers since the race’s inception in 2003.

It will be interesting to see how the six rookie drivers in the field fare against the world-famous Brickyard. Lights drivers and teams will only have one day of practice and qualifying tomorrow before going into the 40-lap race on Friday for Carb Day. All six rookies are making their first start at Indy, and O’Gara and fellow Hoosier Jimmy Simpson are making their first Lights start altogether.

Also in the field is Chase Austin, who was announced last year as the driver for a second A.J. Foyt Racing machine in this year’s “500.” That ride did not pan out due to a lack of funds, but Austin is still here at the Brickyard for a third consecutive year.

FIRESTONE FREEDOM 100
Entry List

2-Juan Pablo Garcia, Team Moore Racing

4-Jorge Goncalvez, Belardi Auto Racing

5-Peter Dempsey, Belardi Auto Racing

7-Gabby Chaves, Schmidt Peterson w/Curb-Agajanian

8-Sage Karam, Schmidt Peterson w/Curb-Agajanian

12-Zach Veach, Andretti Autosport

22-Jimmy Simpson, Team Moore Racing

26-Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport

28-Chase Austin, Jeffrey Mark Motorsport/BHA w/Curb-Agajanian

67-Kyle O’Gara, Schmidt Peterson w/Curb-Agajanian

77-Jack Hawksworth, Schmidt Peterson w/Curb-Agajanian

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

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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Chime confirms Zak Brown to step down as CEO at year’s end

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Brown (right) with United Autosports team. Photo: United Autosports
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This is big in the business of racing department, with news Zak Brown will step down as Group CEO of CSM Sport & Entertainment at year’s end.

CSM acquired Brown’s Just Marketing International, or JMI, in 2013 as part of its expanding portfolio. Brown’s JMI company has long been a company that’s brought a number of high-profile companies into motorsports as sponsors, often in F1 and/or NASCAR.

Brown’s United Autosports team has also had success on the track, and just yesterday won the LMP3 title in the European Le Mans Series with a Ligier JS P3 Nissan. Team co-owner and managing director Richard Dean is also exploring a potential American expansion for the team in 2017 as LMP3 comes Stateside in IMSA’s renamed Prototype Challenge series, the former Mazda Prototype Lites.

Given the fluid development in terms of F1’s ownership structure with Liberty Media set to buy into the sport, Brown’s personal future is always a talking point because he’s been mentioned in the past as a potential successor to F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

Anyway, watch this space following this news.

Here’s the formal release from Chime:

It has been announced today that Zak Brown intends to step down as Group CEO, CSM Sport & Entertainment, at the end of the year. Chris Satterthwaite, CEO of Chime Communications, will join the CSM leadership team through to the end of the year.

During his term as CEO, Zak oversaw greater integration of the CSM group of agencies, positioning the business to take advantage of its international footprint and market-leading expertise.

Zak founded JMI, the world’s largest motorsport marketing agency, in 1995, which was acquired by CSM, the sport and entertainment division of Chime Communications, in 2013.

Zak commented: “I feel privileged to have been part of an extraordinary team during my tenure. I’m satisfied that we have achieved what I set out to do, from the successful integration of JMI into CSM through to preparing a strong business for a successful future.” He continued: “I would like to thank both Chris Satterthwaite and CSM Chairman Lord Coe for their invaluable support and commitment, without which these accomplishments and many more would not have been possible. I will take this experience forward to my next chapter in the arena I know best, motorsport.”

Chris Satterthwaite, CEO, Chime Communications commented: “I would like to thank Zak for his formidable focus, inspired and passionate leadership of CSM which has been instrumental in galvanising and preparing the business for the future. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Zak has agreed to continue his involvement with CSM as Chairman of the Global Advisory Board and Non-Executive Chairman of its motorsport arm, JMI.

Typically busy year for Mazda racing rolls into final stretch of 2016

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Doonan and Jonathan Bomarito. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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There’s been a lot of good points of pride for Mazda in its 2016 season across its usual wide range and spectrum of motorsports.

The last month or so has featured that spectrum in motion, whether in open-wheel, in sports cars, with the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Invitational at its “spiritual home” of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, or in club racing as was witnessed this weekend at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs.

It’s probably easiest to break it down with John Doonan, director of motorsports, Mazda North American Operations, as the month of September draws to a close and October beckons.

Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires done for 2016

Fuller breakouts on each of the three Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 – will follow in the coming days on MotorSportsTalk.

Jones (11) and Stoneman (27) are two of the six Indy Lights title contenders. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Jones (11) and Stoneman (27) fought for Indy Lights title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Admittedly there were some challenges peppered throughout the campaign. A number of niggling mechanical woes popped up to various competitors at various times in Indy Lights; the Pro Mazda car count was low as that series prepares for its car transition while USF2000 staged a typically hard fought battle at the front of the field in the final year of running for the venerable Van Diemen chassis with the tried-and-true Elite-built Mazda engine in the back, before the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis comes online in 2017.

Three solid champions were crowned in the form of Ed Jones (Indy Lights), Aaron Telitz (Pro Mazda) and Anthony Martin  (USF2000) and the three take home a combined more than $2 million in the form Mazda Advancement scholarship support.

“Each one takes on its own personality,” Doonan told NBC Sports. “Clearly, we saw some challenges in Pro Mazda just based on field size. The competition was outstanding, certainly in the top seven, eight cars. We tried to address those things. With the announcement in July of added incentives for the 2017 prize package, we’re hoping to see an increased car count throughout the season.

“For me, that all the championships came down to literally the last race – not the last race weekend, but the last race – what more could you ask for to give all these drivers the opportunities to test their skills and compete, but be under pressure.

“This particular program gives drivers the chance to work and hone their public relations skills, their fitness, their engineering relationship with their team and engineers, and obviously some big events with big crowds. The added pressure is what this is all about, for these races to come down literally to the last race itself and in some cases, the last lap, is pretty incredible. We’re thrilled to be part of this. We can’t wait for the new USF-17. We can’t wait to see what the competition is like in Pro Mazda and see what Pro Mazda drivers from this year jump up to Indy Lights.”

The Mazda Road to Indy will also stage the annual Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course from Oct. 7-9, which provides a first glimpse at who could be driving where in 2017.

Sports cars – Going for one IMSA title and in search of elusive first win

Dwyer is one of Mazda's key drivers in CTSC. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Dwyer is one of Mazda’s key drivers, and Freedom Autosport one of its key teams, in CTSC. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The tried-and-true Mazda MX-5 looks poised to capture its second straight Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge championship if Stevan McAleer and Chad McCumbee can bring home the bacon for a second different team in ST. They won last year for CJ Wilson Racing and now look to deliver for Freedom Autosport; they’re up by eight points on second place and 10 on third going into the Road Atlanta this week.

How they’re even in this position is remarkable itself given at Circuit of The Americas a couple weeks ago, fourth gear and ABS failed on the team’s No. 25 car, before teamwork came in the form of support from the team’s sister car driven by U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer (pictured right) and Andrew Carbonell.

“I was trying to roll as much entry speed as I could, more than anyone would normally use,” said McAleer. “I knew I had Andrew to push me out of the corners.”

“I was there to push him to get him up to speed,” said Carbonell. But it wasn’t easy. “It was a fine, fine balance. I also had to keep my car cool. As hot as it was at COTA, we were seeing some extreme temperatures. I was doing everything I could to manage his time loss, our engine heating and the championship points. It would have been bad to have his car lose a gearbox and my car blows a motor!”

You can read the full story here.

MazdaPrototype70On the team’s Prototype side of the program in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the most promise shown in three years has failed to produce that elusive first win, with particularly strong chances lost at Mazda Raceway, Watkins Glen, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Road America. The No. 55 car of Jonathan Bomarito and Tristan Nunez has three poles and one podium; the No. 70 car of Joel Miller and Tom Long has a best finish of fourth on three occasions. A win would be a nice way to finish off the potential the car, and team, have shown all year.

MazdaPrototype55The team celebrated its 25th anniversary of its 1991 overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, the first and thus far only Japanese manufacturer to do so (Toyota came tantalizingly close this year to matching that, but Mazda offered nothing but support for them and commiserations thereafter).

The Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires will crown its champion at Road Atlanta next week in the form of one of two JDC Motorsports drivers, Austin Versteeg or Clark Toppe.

There’s also titles to be won in the Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car classes; those titles will be decided at, you guessed it, Mazda Raceway the weekend of Oct. 7-9.

Photo: Mazda
The first race for new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car back in May, prior to global invitational. Photo: Mazda

Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Invitational debuts to great acclaim

Part of the “Soul Red Finale” weekend at Mazda Raceway two weeks ago was the debut of the inaugural Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Invitational, which brought a mix of U.S. drivers from the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires and international aces from around the world in the new Global MX-5 Cup car, which debuted this year.

Three U.S. drivers ended 1-2-3 with Sick Sideways Racing and MX-5 Cup points leader Nathanial Sparks taking the global championship over teammate John Dean II with Robby Foley in third. Moritz Kranz and Yuui Tsutsumi were the two highest finishing international drivers in fourth and fifth. Foley won the first race under yellow while Sparks took the second.

This was the pinnacle in a huge debut year for the new Global MX-5 Cup car, with over 100 of the new car ordered in the U.S., announced back in June.

Doonan said of the new car’s success and the inaugural MX-5 weekend, “Yeah, it’s amazing. Fifty cars was what we thought was legitimate, with a $53,000 cost and 50 cars was kind of the target we thought we’d sell. But as of (Monday, Sept. 12), it’s been 116 cars in less than 12 months.

“So, we’re really excited about that and based upon the Global Invitational, a lot of regions around the world are starting to take notice of that and we’re hoping they can establish a series like we’ve had here in the States for the last 10-15 years, and eventually get to a place where there’s a Mazda MX-5 Cup running globally in all these different countries and we do come together for a true global finale. This weekend was an exercise to show all our colleagues around the world that this is what it’d be like when we get a real finale together.”

Club racing success in SCCA and NASA

There were five Mazda-powered SCCA National Runoffs Champions this year:

  • Matt Reynolds, Boerne, Texas – E Production Mazda MX-5 Miata
  • Justin Hille, Ypsilanti, Michigan – Spec Miata
  • Matthew Machiko, Wexford, Pennsylvania – Formula Mazda
  • Ryan Norman, Aurora, Ohio, Formula Atlantic Swift 016a Mazda
  • Stacy Wilson, Englewood, Tennessee – GT3 Mazda RX-7

And also five Mazda-powered NASA Eastern States Champions:

  • Tyler Kicera, Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania – Spec Miata
  • Matt Rivard, Kansas City, Missouri – NP01 Mazda MZR
  • Dillon Dexter, Central City, Nebraska – PTD Mazda MX-5 Miata
  • Warren Dexter, Central City, Nebraska – PTE Mazda MX-5 Miata
  • Mark Burt, Deland, Florida – ST3 Mazda RX-7

One of Mazda’s major lines of note is that more Mazdas are road raced anywhere on a given weekend than any other brand and the success for those drivers, among others, is proof of that.

Doonan said, “Thanks to all of our Mazda Motorsports family members who competed at Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen and congratulations to our latest class of Mazda-powered club racing champions. I can’t wait to see if one of these champions moves on in winning the Mazda Road to 24 or Mazda Road to Indy Shootout.”

On the whole: Doing a lot with a small family

I’m not entirely sure there’s only one John Doonan given the breadth and reach of involvement Mazda Motorsports has throughout the country. But pinning what I think is the lone Doonan down makes it apparent that it is about the team he has in play, to be able to pull all of this off.

“It’s not easy. We do have a very small staff,” Doonan admitted. “I think the critical element in all this is to stay the course of the strategy, but also to continuously improve. We’re constantly meeting and talking about what we can do better and what the industry is doing and what we need to be doing.

“But I think it’s staying laser-focused on what our goals are, and that is a solid foundation of grassroots racing, a driver development program both on the open-wheel side both with the Mazda Road To Indy and the closed-wheel side with Mazda Road to 24, with the pinnacle peak of the pyramid being our top global sports car program.

“And as a sports car program, that’s where the heart of our entire brand is. And to have drivers who have come through the Mazda Road to Indy or the Mazda Road to 24 are the foundational drivers of that program, or bringing Spencer (Pigot) in for endurance races. I’m pretty certain in that room tonight here at the banquet that there’s another endurance driver, as well.

“I’m really proud of where we are – and looking for a nap in the off-season for both myself and my staff.”

2016 SCCA Runoffs National Champions crowned at Mid-Ohio

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Shadowen won GTL. Photo: SCCA
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This weekend marked one of the highlights – if not the outright highlight – of the club racing season as the SCCA National Championship Runoffs took place at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The Runoffs were held at Mid-Ohio for quite a while before moving to Road America and then in the last two years, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Daytona International Speedway. Next year, they go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Here are this year’s National Champions:

FRIDAY

  • Formula Enterprises: Scott Rettich
  • American Sedan: Andy McDermid
  • Prototype 1: Jim Devenport
  • Touring 2: Kurt Rezzetano
  • Formula Vee: Michael Varacins
  • E Production: Matt Reynolds
  • Formula 500: Steven Thompson
  • STU: Joe Moser
  • GT-2: Trent Hindman
  • Touring 4: Oscar Jackson

SATURDAY

  • Touring 3: Derek Kulach
  • SRF: Todd Harris
  • Formula Mazda: Matthew Machiko
  • Spec Miata: Justin Hille
  • STL: Kevin Boehm
  • GT-Lite: Peter Shadowen
  • Formula 1000: Kevin Roggenbuck
  • H Production: Brian Linn
  • B-Spec: David Daughtery

SUNDAY

  • Formula Atlantic: Ryan Norman
  • GT-3: Stacy Wilson
  • Formula Continental: John LaRue
  • F Production: John Walker
  • Formula F: Neil Verhagen (15 years, 242 days old – youngest National Champ in history)
  • SRF Gen3: Cliff White
  • Touring 1: Ross Murray
  • Prototype 2: Jeff Shafer
  • GT-1: Cliff Ebben