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.

Hamilton has considered quitting F1, but now ‘loving it more than ever’

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed he considered quitting Formula 1 in order to pursue interests outside of the sport, but currently has no plans to retire, saying he is “loving it more than ever”.

Hamilton, 32, is currently fighting for his fourth drivers’ title against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, and leads the championship by 28 points with six races remaining.

The Briton enjoys a celebrity profile outside of the sport unmatched by any of his peers, and has interests in fashion and music that he has long expressed a desire in pursuing once his racing career has finished.

After winning last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix, Hamilton returned to Europe to attend the fashion week events in London and Milan before jetting to Malaysia next week to continue his championship bid.

Appearing on UK chatshow The Jonathan Ross Show, Hamilton discussed his future plans and admitted he had considered turning his back on F1 in the past.

“You try and go as long as you can. It’s not a sport you can go back to,” Hamilton said.

“When you’re in Formula 1, you’re in the spotlight, you’re at the top of the world – then it’s downhill from there on.

“You don’t earn the same money, there’s not a huge amount of opportunities because you’ve been in that world for so long. I’ve been there since I was eight.

“For me at the moment, for these past five, six years I’ve really been trying to work on what I enjoy outside of the sport so that when I stop I can walk away and still have other things.”

When asked directly if he was planning to retire soon, Hamilton said: “No. There have been talks about it, and I definitely have thought about it.

“There have definitely been times when I’ve thought there are other things I want to do, but then we’re in the heat of this battle right now and I’m loving it more than ever.

“The training, all the work that you put into something, and then you get to really show your abilities, it’s the greatest feeling ever.

“So I’m going to keep going for as long as I can and see what I can do.”

Hamilton existing contract with Mercedes expires at the end of the 2018 season, the Briton having made his F1 debut back in 2007.

Rossi expecting to ‘suffer’ with injury in MotoGP Aragon race

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Valentino Rossi is expecting to “suffer” in Sunday’s MotoGP race at Motorland Aragon as he competes just 23 days after suffering a double leg-break in a training accident.

Rossi was forced to miss the last race at Misano due to the injury and was expected to miss the Aragon Grand Prix, only to make a shock return and be cleared by MotoGP’s medical staff on Thursday.

Rossi qualified a remarkable third on Saturday for Yamaha, less than two-tenths of a second behind pole-sitting teammate Maverick Viñales, surprising himself in the process.

“It’s a surprise for me and us, because I didn’t know what to expect,” Rossi said.

“A week ago I started to think maybe it was possible to ride here, and I did some laps with the R1 [bike] thinking it could be possible but with some pain. But the leg has improved every day.

“My position on the bike isn’t perfect but quite close to the normal one, at first we changed some things but now I’m using the normal footpeg and seat position and for sure it’s better.”

Despite impressing in qualifying, Rossi is less hopeful of his chances across a race distance, but is ready to give his all in the race.

“We still need to work a bit because with the race tire my pace isn’t fantastic but we’ll try,” Rossi said.

“On Friday morning when I woke up I was in pain, then this morning when I woke up it was better. So if tomorrow continues in the same way, I can do the race.

“But the bike is a bit more demanding on the race tires. For sure I have to suffer, but I’ll try.”

Ricciardo confident Red Bull hasn’t missed last F1 win chance in 2017

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Red Bull Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo is confident the team has not missed its last chance to win a race in 2017 after losing out to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in Singapore.

Red Bull ran strongly throughout the Singapore race weekend, with Ricciardo boldly stating the team would win after qualifying third for the race.

A wet-dry affair marred by a start-line crash allowed Hamilton to sweep from fifth to first, while Ricciardo was left to settle for P2 for the third straight year in Singapore.

With none of the remaining circuits appearing to suit Red Bull’s RB13 car as well as Singapore, Ferrari and Mercedes are expected to share the spoils through the final six races of the year.

However, Ricciardo is sure that Red Bull will get another opportunity to add to its surprise victory in Baku earlier this season, which came about in surprising circumstances.

“Malaysia, obviously there were a few incidents last year but I think our general pace wasn’t too bad so we might be stronger than we think there,” Ricciardo said, looking ahead to next weekend’s race in Kuala Lumpur.

“Malaysia, Japan and then we’ll see. I think we can be podium cars, probably Malaysia, Japan, Austin.

“We might need some alternate conditions to really give us raw pace to fight for a win.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we’re not going to win one.

“I believe we’ll get at least one chance somewhere.”

F1 teams allowed to use current-year cars for demos from 2018

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Formula 1 teams will be allowed to use their latest-spec cars at demonstrations organized by the sport from 2018, the FIA has confirmed.

F1 hit the streets of London, England ahead of the British Grand Prix in July for a live demonstration that attracted a crowd of over 100,000 fans.

Due to restrictions on the use of current cars outside of official testing and grand prix weekends, all teams were required to appear with older chassis models in London, most coming from 2015, the most recent year allowed to be used freely.

The restrictions meant that Haas, which only became an F1 team in 2016, could not field a car at all in London.

As part of the updated sporting regulations approved by the World Motor Sport Council and issued by the FIA earlier this week, a rule tweak was confirmed to let teams use their current-year cars at “demonstration events organized by the Commercial Rights Holder”.

Teams are still allowed to complete two filming day events with their current cars, with the majority opting to use one prior to pre-season testing to act as a shakedown of their new models.

While no further demonstrations such as the one in London have been confirmed by F1 yet, they are understood to be in the works after the success the July event enjoyed.