Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves

The Indianapolis 500: Still alive and making a comeback

2 Comments

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.

IMSA: Corvette, Paul Miller complete flawless weekends to win at VIR

imsa_28931523
Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

Corvette Racing and Paul Miller Racing dominated the Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway all-GT weekend for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and promptly culminated their weekends on top by controlling the two-hour, 40-minute race en route to class wins in GT Le Mans and GT Daytona.

Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen took the No. 3 Corvette C7.R to the GLTM class win, that pair’s first win of the year, while Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow brought it home for the No. 48 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in GT Daytona for the team’s first WeatherTech Championship win and the first for the Lamborghini in the U.S.

Both cars controlled the race but Garcia and Sellers – past GT class sparring partners before Sellers moved into the GTD class this year – needed to restart strongly in a one-lap dash to the checkered flag following the race’s lone full-course caution.

It appeared as though the sister Corvette, the GTLM-points leading car of Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, slipped on oil going into the roller coaster. Gavin limped the wounded No. 4 Corvette C7.R back to the pits following an impact that looked worse than it was, and while he emerged out of the car OK, it was a bitter blow for the car that had won the last two GTLM races.

Nonetheless, even though the accident occurred with just over six minutes remaining, IMSA and VIR did well to get the track cleaned and back to race conditions.

There was still drama after the green with contact occurring between the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE driven by Giancarlo Fisichella and the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR of Earl Bamber.  Fisichella’s No. 62 Ferrari was parked in Turn 1 and dropped to seventh at the finish.

Per IMSA Radio, a reported altercation took place after the race, with Fisichella reportedly slamming the side of the No. 912 Porsche once all cars were coming into the pit lane.

The No. 912 Porsche was actually third in the race, behind the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand.

The No. 4 Corvette fell to ninth in class, while championship sparring partners the No. 67 Ford of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe gained extra points by finishing fourth.

That tentatively sees Gavin and Milner clear of Westbrook and Briscoe by seven points (287-280) with two races remaining.

GTD was a bit of a more straightforward affair with Sellers and Snow dominating the race. Lamborghini was the only GTD manufacturer that hadn’t won, but that stat now ends following today’s result. Sellers hailed Snow’s performance, noting the talented youngster out of Utah did the bulk of the work in the race. Sellers had a minor scare with an off course excursion but otherwise there were no issues. The car led every session this weekend.

The three Audi R8 LMS cars were second through fourth on the road, with the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi of Lawson Aschenbach and Matt Bell on the podium for the first time this year in second, and the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi of John Potter and Andy Lally in third.

But following post-race technical inspection, Magnus’ podium was erased, as officials discovered a minimum ride height infraction. That promoted the second Stevenson Audi (No. 6 car of Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis) from fourth to third.

Porsche’s lone entry in the race ended last car on the class lead lap in fourth, the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R of Mario Farnbacher and Alex Riberas.

Change Racing’s No. 16 Lamborghini of Spencer Pumpelly and Corey Lewis had podium potential but lost out again after Pumpelly was hung out a lap too long on fuel and needing to crawl back to the pits, ending fifth. The No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen ended sixth after an off-course excursion.

The points leaders in this class had a fraught day too; a puncture and an overboost penalty capped off a tough weekend for the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 of Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen in seventh place.

Balzan and Nielsen unofficially lead the surging Lally and Potter by just eight points (267-259). Positions third through sixth in class sit anywhere from 20 to 36 points back.

IMSA resumes at Circuit of The Americas on Sept. 17 with all four classes.

Follow @TonyDiZinno

ERS issue costs Grosjean, Haas possible points finish in Belgium

Spa-Francorchamps, Spa, Belgium.
Saturday 27 August 2016.

World Copyright: Andy Hone/LAT Photographic
ref: Digital Image _ONZ2206
© Haas F1 Team
Leave a comment

Romain Grosjean was left frustrated after an issue with his energy recovery system (ERS) during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix cost him a possible points finish.

Haas Formula 1 driver Grosjean started 11th at Spa, but made a superb start to run as high as fifth in the early stages.

However, the decision to pit just three laps before the race was red flagged combined with the ERS issue that cost him straight line speed dropped Grosjean outside of the points.

The Frenchman enjoyed a strong final stint, but was unable to finish any higher than 13th for the American team.

“Well, it was a very good start and a very good first lap. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any top speed in the beginning of the race,” Grosjean explained.

“Something was not going quite right. It took a lot of time to solve that. My last stint wasn’t bad. I made up a lot of time on everyone, but the damage had already been done.”

Grosjean believes he could have scored his first points since the Austrian Grand Prix at the beginning of July, with Haas struggling to replicate its early-season form.

“We had a shot at a good finish today,” Grosjean said.

“On the positive side, I’m much happier with the car than I was recently, so that’s at least great.

“It’s just a shame we lost an opportunity for a good result.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez recovered from a grid penalty to finish the race 12th, with the Mexican taking a number of positives from the weekend.

“It wasn’t the result we expected. We were fighting very hard to get into the top-10 and even though we didn’t manage to get there, I think we did well,” Gutierrez said.

“The balance of the car felt good and we had reasonable pace. This is one of the things we need to keep up for the coming events because it’s what’s going to keep us consistent and help us get the most out of the car.

“I feel very grateful for the team. They did a great job and had some great pit stops. We lost some time on the safety car before the red flag, but sometimes it goes that way.

“We finished P12, so I’m not completely satisfied, but we will keep pushing.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed makes it a three-peat, survives Atlantic City

P-20160828-00361_News
Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool
Leave a comment

In a crazy, chaotic, Round 8 of Red Bull Global Rallycross season 2016, Scott Speed secured his third straight win in the Supercar final at Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and has taken over the points lead for the first time this season. He also won Rounds 6 and 7 at MCAS New River and Washington, D.C., respectively.

There were a lot of “situations” that presented themselves both in the final and in the run up to the final, before Speed broke through to grab the win in the No. 41 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle GRC.

Speed’s teammate Tanner Foust in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle had the lead after the first lap from Speed, Steve Arpin, Nelson Piquet Jr. in a repaired car and Patrik Sandell. Twelve cars were in the Supercar final with only Kevin Eriksson in the third Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Honda Civic Coupe unable to advance.

The order was stable for the first four laps of the eight-lap final up front, while Joni Wiman (Honda), Red Bull GRC debutante Chris Atkinson in a third Subaru Rally Team USA entry and Atkinson’s teammate Bucky Lasek all pulled off.

Foust, who hadn’t won since Daytona round two in June, was poised to secure the win but sustained a right rear tire puncture in the final couple laps as the 1.102-mile circuit was littered with debris around the course.

He slipped back into Speed’s clutches and with just two to go, Speed made it by on the inside for the lead of the hairpin, the second-to-last corner on the track.

Foust hung on for dear life from there but lost two more spots, falling to fourth.

But the podium complexion changed when Arpin, in the No. 00 ENEOS USA Ford Fiesta ST for Chip Ganassi Rallycross, ran wide on the second-to-last straight and off course.

Sandell took his No. 18 Cuttwood Ford for Bryan Herta Rallysport past both Foust and Arpin, which promoted him to second, and Deegan took his No. 38 NOS Energy Drink Ford for Ganassi up to third. Foust and Arpin, Speed’s two primary protagonists in the title battle, limped home in fourth and fifth with Sebastian Eriksson best of the Hondas in sixth.

“This track was one of the most technical we’ve been on,” Speed told NBC’s Kristen Kenney in victory lane. “I got caught out the third lap with my rear. So I was conservative trying to make it.

“It was just one of those tracks where you have to navigate grooves and potholes. I was happy to come away with the win. Glad Tanner could come home fourth… but I hoped he would have been joining me on the podium.”

Unofficially Speed, who also won his Semifinal, now leads the championship by nine points over Foust (409-400). Arpin is third, 52 back, with Sandell fourth on 57 back and Deegan fifth on 64 back.

Next up for Red Bull GRC is a trip to Seattle on Sept. 17 for the penultimate race weekend of the season.

Massa fades to P10 late on in Belgium, but ends points drought

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Felipe Massa saw his run of four Formula 1 races without a point come to an end in Belgium on Sunday as he crossed the line in 10th place for Williams.

Massa’s last top-10 finish came at the European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, enduring a run of form that had seen him score as many points as Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein in the five races prior to the Belgian Grand Prix.

Massa capitalized on the dramatic start at Spa to rise into the top 10, and was running sixth after making his final pit stop.

However, the Brazilian struggled to manage his tires in the closing stages, causing him to fade to 10th place at the checkered flag.

“It was a very difficult race. Trying to look after the tires until the end and checking the tire pressures while we were racing was tough,” Massa said.

“It was difficult to stay out long enough on track. When the tires were there we were fighting for a great position.

“But when the tures went off we just couldn’t fight anymore.”

Massa’s teammate Valtteri Bottas only fared marginally better, crossing the line eighth for four points as Williams dropped to fifth place in the constructors’ championship.

“It was a disappointing day and a shame that we wasted the opportunity that we had at the beginning of the race,” Bottas said.

“We were in a great position after the start and when the safety car came in we should have pitted immediately. We then lost many positions.

“We tried to get the most out the race that we could after that, and I’m happy that we could at least get some points in the end, but overall it was disappointing.

“Looking ahead, we’ve got another race next week and obviously we need to learn from today. Hopefully we’ll be better in Monza.”