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.

Handful of Indy 500 sponsor announcements made on Thursday

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It’s Cinco de Mayo and the sponsor announcements for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil are flowing in a bit like margaritas will be later today around the country.

Get out your pen and paper, or laptop and spreadsheet, to add these names and figures to your entry list for the race. Because there’s a lot of companies and brands stepping up to the plate.

Four different teams have made sponsor announcements and here they are:

  • unnamed (1)Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) announced today that Lucas Oil and Jahia Solutions Group will co-sponsor the No. 77 SPM with Marotti Racing entry driven by Oriol Servia in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Lucas Oil is a longtime SPM partner. “My number one aim was to make sure I was participating in the 100th Indy 500 with a team that could give me a car to contend for the win, and I have no doubt that Sam Schmidt and all his group at SPM will do exactly that,” Servia said in a release. “Being sponsored by Lucas Oil and Jahia are just the cherry on the cake and I couldn’t be happier to represent companies with such high standards. I can’t wait for May 29th to hopefully make them proud.”
  • unnamed (27)Royal Purple announced its sponsorship of the Ed Carpenter Racing team for the 2016 race season. The lubricant will adorn the engine cover of Carpenter’s No. 20 Chevrolet. Additionally, Royal Purple is launching the 2016 Royal Purple Indy 500 Sweepstakes, offering race fans the opportunity to win a one-of-a-kind Royal Purple racing helmet signed by Ed Carpenter. From May 5 – June 1, fans can enter the sweepstakes by completing the online entry form at http://www.RoyalPurple.com. Following the close of the sweepstakes’ entry period, one winner will be chosen at random to receive the grand prize.
  • BANDITRahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) announced today that Bandit Industries Inc., a premier global manufacturer of industrial wood chippers and wood processing equipment, will be an associate sponsor for the No. 16 Verizon IndyCar Series entry of reigning Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot in both events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Pigot raced the season opener at St. Petersburg and is hopeful to run further races after the pair of events during the month of May.
  • contextdesignThe latest partner to adorn the No. 88 Dale Coyne/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing Honda driven by Bryan Clauson is Context Design, which was established in 1998 as a small, client-focused landscape architecture and land planning firm near Indianapolis, Indiana. Context’s award-winning site design studio is passionate about helping clients to create meaningful spaces and experiences that connect people to the land.

Wolff doubts Ferrari’s Sochi struggles will continue

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo ahead of Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff thinks that Ferrari’s lack of pace in last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix was specific to the Sochi Autodrom circuit and not a sign of things to come in 2016.

Ferrari entered 2016 hopeful of mounting a serious challenge to Mercedes after a strong showing in pre-season, only to struggle to keep up with the German marque in the first four races of the season.

The deficit was particularly worrying for Ferrari in Russia last weekend when Kimi Raikkonen finished as Ferrari’s lead driver but over 30 seconds down on race winner Nico Rosberg.

Talking to reporters after the race, Wolff refused to read too much into Ferrari’s pace, believing the deficit to be largely down to the nature of the track in Sochi.

“The track is very different with a very smooth surface, and we saw that the pace of many teams was different to the races before,” Wolff said.

“Williams was very strong, Red Bull weren’t, and Ferrari weren’t as good as expected. This is a circuit where you have to get it right in terms of mechanical grip and aerodynamic downforce – and engine power plays a role.

“I would say that the dent in the Ferrari performance is Sochi-specific. But that is only my guess.”

Mercedes’ advantage was perhaps even bigger than the 30-second gap between Rosberg and Raikkonen suggested, considering that the race winner was hindered by an issue on his power unit in the second half of the race.

Ferrari’s main problem so far this season has been with the reliability of its cars, as both Raikkonen and teammate Sebastian Vettel have hit trouble in the opening four races.

A James Hinchcliffe tattoo exists, and it is glorious (VIDEO)

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motosports Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Only fitting that on Cinco de Mayo – 5/5 – we do a post about the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in James Hinchcliffe.

And given Hinchcliffe’s proclivity for humour (the Canadian spelling is intentional here), we thought it appropriate to show off this gem of an advert produced by Honda Canada.

Apparently such a thing as a James Hinchcliffe tattoo exists, and it’s featured within the ad.

Hinchcliffe rocks up in a new 2016 Honda Civic Coupe. Problem is, the superfan played by Hinchcliffe’s countryman and Canadian actor Justin G Landry has the right tattoo, but no longer the right car to match his racing hero.

You can see the full video below, as well as a couple tweets to go along with it:

RGR Sport by Morand keen to build on debut WEC victory in Spa

Car # 43 / RGR SPORT BY MORAND / MEX / Ligier JS P2 - Nissan / Ricardo Gonzalez (MEX) / Filipe Albuquerque (PRT) / Bruno Senna (BRA) - WEC 6 Hours of Silverstone - Silverstone Circuit - Towcester, Northamptonshire - UK
© FIA WEC
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After claiming an impressive victory in its debut FIA World Endurance Championship race at Silverstone three weeks ago, the RGR Sport by Morand team heads to this weekend’s 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with high hopes of a repeat result.

RGR Sport by Morand became the first Mexican team to enter the WEC earlier this year when it entered the LMP2 class, signing ex-Formula 1 driver Bruno Senna and former Audi racer Filipe Albuquerque to race alongside team owner Ricardo Gonzalez.

The iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps plays host to its annual six-hour race this Saturday, and with the addition of the no. 38 G-Drive entry, the LMP2 class is now up to 12 cars, the biggest on the grid.

However, Gonzalez is unconcerned, instead relishing the challenge of racing at such a famous circuit as he bids to make it two wins from two races.

“Spa has always been one of my favorite tracks so to go there with our own team is going to be great,” Gonzalez said.

“We’re coming in off a win and as the championship leaders so it’s important to carry the momentum forward.

“The team has done a lot of work back at the shop to give us an even better car for Spa, so there’s no reason why we can’t go out and fight for another win.”

Senna hopes to follow in the footsteps of his uncle this weekend by claiming a first win at Spa. Ayrton Senna won the Belgian Grand Prix five times in F1, including four-in-a-row for McLaren between 1988 and 1991.

“After great success during the team’s first race at the 6 Hours of Silverstone, I’m looking even more forward to racing with Ricardo and Filipe and the RGR Sport by Morand team,” Senna said.

“Nothing has changed in terms of our approach for this weekend in Spa, but efforts have not been spared since Silverstone and lots of analysis and developments are ongoing to make sure we keep improving and get more competitive as the championship progresses.

“Spa is one of my favorite tracks and I’ve qualified on pole and front-row there many times, but I’m still yet to win it. Will push very hard for it!”

The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps takes place on Saturday May 7.