Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves

The Indianapolis 500: Still alive and making a comeback

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The Indianapolis 500 has witnessed and endured many things in its 97 years of existence. In more recent times, it has had to sustain itself against a crippling split in open-wheel racing, NASCAR’s evolution from a strictly Southern tradition to a national phenomenon, and perhaps more importantly, a wealth of entertainment options that simply didn’t exist when the race was in its heyday.

But times are getting better at the Brickyard. Slowly but surely, the ‘500’ has started to gain back some of its former glory. Helping it has been the on-track product, which improved dramatically last year with the introduction of new cars and engines; 2012’s race saw a record number of passes for the lead and wasn’t settled until the final lap.

This year, it may be easier to determine who doesn’t have a chance at winning the race than who can be a contender. In the first four races of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, the wide-open competition has meant nobody has been able to dominate. If that carries over to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the 97th running of this race stands a good chance of continuing the event’s positive momentum.

The pair of three-time ‘500’ winners, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves, are Indy’s modern legends. And as two of the longest-tenured drivers in the series, they’ve been able to see and appreciate how Indy has evolved throughout their careers.

For Franchitti, it’s about recognizing his place in history, even if he still isn’t comfortable being part of the discussion.

“Where do you start with all of them? My hero Jimmy Clark, Dan (Gurney), Parnelli (Jones), A.J. (Foyt), JR (Johnny Rutherford), Mario (Andretti), Uncle Bobby (Unser) just to name a few,” he said. “It’s always weird to think about it. There’s something not quite right about being in the discussion. To me, they’re on a pedestal.”

Castroneves won his first Indianapolis appearance in 2001 and says the buzz now is as strong as it has been at any point in his 15-plus year open-wheel career.

“The Indy 500, it never lost its star or its shine,” he said. “The race never went away, but certainly, the series might have a different view. The only thing I can say is that the next few years, I see only bright things.”

Castroneves’ Team Penske teammate, AJ Allmendinger, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut fresh from NASCAR. The last time he was in open-wheel racing, in 2006, was during the acrimonious split. It robbed him and others a chance to race in what they considered the most prestigious event.

“I felt like open-wheel (then) had been degraded,” he admitted. “The fans suffered the most because you didn’t get all the best guys in every race and as a driver, you wanted the best guys. I thought Indy lost a little bit of luster … growing up, I was watching it when all the best people weren’t there.”

Now, for Allmendinger, coming from a series that garners more national attention over the course of a season, it’s apparent he was missing out on what the Indianapolis 500 has to offer.

“When I came here in Cup and walked through Gasoline Alley for the first time and went down the front straightaway, I said ‘Okay, I get what it’s all about,’” he said. “Now, having been here for the last two and a half weeks, and on race day, when there’s 250,000 people in the grandstands – it’s brought those emotions over to me and it’s made me say ‘Okay, this really is the greatest spectacle in all of racing.’ I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.”

The 500 represents both a major national event and the banner day for Indianapolis as a city. Drivers who have moved to Indianapolis describe how the fever builds over the month of May.

“You see it even through close friends and family and people just wanting to come to the race,” said Franchitti’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and 2008 500 winner Scott Dixon. “I’m lucky enough to live in Indy and see the buzz starting from the first part of the month of May.”

It’s rare racing drivers are united on anything – setup differences and food preferences often run the gamut of opinions. But they all understand, embrace and appreciate the behemoth that is Indianapolis.

“You can’t put a price tag on it,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending series champion from Andretti Autosport. “You grow up watching and discover this is where heroes are made. The guy who wins might as well have a ‘Superman’ cape on.”

“RHR” wasn’t directly speaking of JR Hildebrand there, but the third-year driver for Panther Racing does have a Superman livery on his No. 4 National Guard Chevrolet this month. Hildebrand admits finding more fans in the younger demographic – really seeing these Indy 500 drivers as heroes – will go a long way towards the race’s continued future growth.

“Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a resurgence,” he said. “But to be frank with you, in order for that to happen, guys like me and Hinch [James Hinchcliffe] and [Josef] Newgarden gotta have a shot at winning the thing. We’ve got to run up front and be there at the end of the day.”

Hinchcliffe has won two of the year’s first four IndyCar races, including a last-lap pass of points leader Takuma Sato in Brazil. But Hinchcliffe admits when you get to Indy, everyone starts at zero.

“You can be cautiously optimistic, but this race has a history of crushing people when you think you’re close,” he said.

Like Hinchcliffe, Newgarden is a social media savvy youngster (he’s 22) who has the potential to captivate a new audience. Mature beyond his years, Newgarden is both candid and blunt about Indy’s prestige level.

“It’s not about points racing. If you don’t believe you can win going in, why are you competing?” he asks. “That’s all it’s about at the 500.”

Townsend Bell, Hildebrand’s Panther Racing teammate this month and also an analyst for NBC Sports Network’s IndyCar coverage, estimated between 25 to 28 possible winners of the race. Bell, having watched all four races this season from the booth, plus practicing with them, would be well-versed to make such a guess.

So who’s a favorite? The closest thing to one could be Marco Andretti, he of the legendary surname and off to the best start of his eight-year IndyCar career. Andretti nearly missed winning as a 19-year-old rookie in 2006, but says the race is at a much higher point now.

“I’d like to think so,” he said. “The league has generated some interest in general but this race in particular has always been strong, yet I think it’s coming back to where it used to be. It used to be crazy, so that’s fun to be a part of that – and I think they need an Andretti to win. That’ll help.”

The latest chapter of history at Indianapolis will occur this Sunday, and 33 drivers will be working tirelessly to ensure it’s their name that enters – or re-enters – legendary status.

See Carb Day coverage on NBC Sports Network starting at 11 a.m. ET, and IndyCar 36 featuring Simona de Silvestro at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

10-year F1 title drought would be a ‘tragedy’ for Ferrari

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 21:  Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, gives an interview while on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after Ferrari's IPO on October 21, 2015 in New York City. Ferrari will trade under the symbol RACE.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne believes that it would be a “tragedy” for Ferrari to go 10 years without a championship in Formula 1.

Ferrari last won a constructors’ championship back in 2008, while its last drivers’ title came courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.

2015 saw the Italian marque enjoy a resurgence as Sebastian Vettel won three races and managed to take the fight to Mercedes at the front of the field on a regular basis.

Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Marchionne said that this upturn in fortunes helped to bring credibility back to the Ferrari brand, but that this must be built upon with a championship in the next three years.

“If we were to string together victories in F1 then it would improve our brand,” Marchionne said.

“I was speaking with one of our car dealerships and we agreed that the results of 2015 helped bring back credibility to the brand.

“If we were to somehow fail to win a title over a 10-year span, it would be a tragedy.”

When discussing Ferrari’s success in 2015, Marchionne was full of praise for new team principal Maurizio Arrivabene who took over from Marco Mattiacci at the end of 2014.

“We won because we brought focus back to the team and began to do the things that are really important. Maurizio Arrivabene’s arrival helped a lot,” Marchionne said.

“He is great at creating a team atmosphere. He knows how to make everyone work together.”

Daniel de Jong favors GP2 stay over LMP2 move

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Saturday 28 November 2015.
Daniel de Jong (NLD, Trident), Raffaele Marciello (ITA, Trident).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _MG_4831
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Daniel de Jong will remain in the GP2 Series for the 2016 season with MP Motorsport after deciding against a move into the LMP2 class of the FIA World Endurance Championship.

De Jong made his GP2 debut back in 2012 with Rapax and has since raced for MP Motorsport, scoring six points over the past three years.

The Dutchman admitted that he did consider his future in the series after 2015, but ultimately decided against a move into LMP2 despite enjoying a successful test.

“Last year, we began looking at what the future holds for us. We looked into LMP2 pretty seriously, and I did a test that really pleased me,” de Jong said.

“But then I saw the WEC prototypes and GP2 race on the same weekend in Bahrain, and I thought: GP2 is such an amazing category, with cars battling throughout the entire field.

“That’s why I decided to stay in this hugely competitive championship for one more year before a possible switch to prototype racing.”

De Jong will race alongside 2015 Formula Renault 3.5 champion Oliver Rowland at MP this year, a prospect that the GP2 veteran is relishing.

“With Oliver as a teammate, we have a fantastic year ahead of us,” de Jong said. “He is so good and extremely motivated, and we’ve known each other for a long time.

“Everyone in the team is buzzing with enthusiasm and that feels really great.”

Jorda laughs off claim she was 12 secs per lap off pace in simulator

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Development driver Carmen Jorda of Spain and Lotus F1 looks on in the team garage during practice for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 8, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Renault development driver Carmen Jorda has laughed off an accusation from former GP2 driver Marco Sørensen that she was 12 seconds per lap slower than him in the Lotus simulator.

Jorda joined Lotus in a development role in 2015 after spending three seasons in GP3, where she finished in a highest position of 13th and failed to score a point in 46 attempts.

Jorda is yet to drive a Formula 1 car, but completed work for Lotus in its simulator during 2015.

Sørensen formerly enjoyed ties with Lotus before turning his attention away from single-seaters and moving into endurance racing with Aston Martin Racing.

In an interview with Danish publication Ekstra Bladet, Sørensen said that Jorda received favoritism within the team despite being as much as 12 seconds per lap slower than him in the simulator.

“She was 12 seconds slower than me in the simulator,” Sorensen claimed. “Still, she ran away with all the rewards.

“I have spent at least 60 days in the simulator in the past two years working on the development of the Formula 1 car, as Kevin Magnussen has done at McLaren.

“So I felt so violated that it finally became too much, so I just had to stop.”

Jorda responded by taking to Twitter and laughing off the claims, posting in both English and Spanish: “12 seconds faster? I’ve been laughing at that for 12 hours!” The English tweet has since been deleted.

Jorda also spoke about Sørensen’s comments in an interview with Spanish newspaper AS, saying: “I honestly don’t know who he is. I haven’t ever seen him in Enstone. Last year he was not part of the team.

“Last year in the simulator I used to be more or less within a second of [Romain] Grosjean.

“If you trust Sørensen’s numbers – if someone was 11 seconds up on Romain, I’m sure that all the F1 teams on the grid would sign them.”

MX-5 Cup Shootout winner Glenn McGee joins JJRD program

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Photo: Mazda Road to 24
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Glenn McGee’s a name you might hear down the road as he progresses through the Mazda Road to 24 program, having won the shootout to compete in the Mazda MX-5 Cup this season after advancing in from iRacing.

He’s now joined the Jonathan Jorge Racing Development (JJRD) driver development program for the year. A full release on that is below, along with a video of his shootout win.

JJ Racing Development (JJRD), an industry leader in coaching and driver development services among the junior and pro-levels of motorsports, has selected professional gamer turned professional race car driver, Glenn McGee to join their 2016 driver development program. In addition to JJRD’s full coaching services, designed to prepare drivers for the demands of a professional racing career, JJRD’s team of drivers will also benefit from the expert instructors, advanced modern formula race cars, and seat-time at North America’s premiere tracks, provided by the Lucas Oil School of Racing.

With the intent to identify and develop elite drivers, JJRD scouts for those whom demonstrate the raw ingredients to succeed in motorsports and works to successfully transition them into the pro-ranks; instilling the racing techniques, physical, social, and mental tools required to climb the motorsports ladder. Elite talents, scouted and retained within JJRD’s Driver Development program include current Indy Lights driver/winner, R.C. Enerson; Mazda Prototype driver, Tristan Nunez; and Indy Driver, Spencer Pigot.

McGee’s induction into the program is unique and offers an equally unique challenge to JJRD in that he will be the first of their drivers transitioning from virtual-to-reality. McGee recently went from being the fastest virtual Mazda driver in world competition (through motorsport simulation software, iRacing.com) to earning an invite and eventually winning the 2015 Mazda Road to 24 Shootout against real-life Mazda club racing champions; taking home a $100,000 Mazda scholarship and pro-seat in the 2016 Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup, Presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

Part of JJRD’s program will be designed around helping the young driver successfully move from the virtual world to a real pro-racing career, while complimenting Mazda’s own driver development plans for McGee.

“We are committed to guiding talented drivers towards reaching their full-potential and are proud of what our drivers have achieved,” said JJRD’s Jonatan Jorge. “We’ve helped successfully guide drivers to the top of both the Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 ladder systems; evidenced by JJRD development drivers RC Enerson, Spencer Pigot and Tristian Nunez, and we think we can do the same with McGee,” Jorge continued “He has shown he has raw speed and a lot of the attributes that we look for when identifying these promising talents for the future and we are excited to invest in a driver from such a unique background. With our support, it will be interesting to see what a top simulation driver can do in the real world”

“I’m really honored to be a part of JJRD’s team which has already produced great drivers,” said McGee. “This is a big year for me as I navigate from being a pro sim-driver on iRacing.com to becoming a full fledged professional racing driver,” “There is an extraordinary amount to learn, but JJRD specializes in nurturing drivers from the start of their career and has proven that their methods work. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together!”

McGee begins his program in earnest with JJRD and the Lucas Oil School of Racing where he’ll gain valuable seat time and instruction; working closely with staff on learning in-depth knowledge of advanced racing techniques, speed, racecraft, strategies, chassis setup, and the myriad of mental tools required to grow into a world-class professional driver. Open to drivers who complete the 2-Day course, McGee will also be attending the schools winter racing series, the Lucas Oil Formula Car Series, to further supplement his training with JJRD.