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.

Touring car legend Yvan Muller to leave WTCC after 2016

STRASBOURG, FRANCE - OCTOBER 04:   Yvan Muller of France attends the FIA pre event press conference at rally headquarters after the Shakedown of the WRC France on October 04, 2012 in Strasbourg , France.  (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
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Touring car racing legend and four-time world champion Yvan Muller will leave the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) at the end of the 2016 season.

Muller made his name in the British Touring Car Championship before making the switch across to WTCC in 2006 with Seat.

The Frenchman claimed his first world title in 2008 before enjoying further successes in 2010, 2011 and 2013, the latter three championships won while behind the wheel of a Chevrolet.

Muller joined Citroen following its arrival in WTCC for the 2014 season, but has been unable to add to his haul of championship as teammate Jose Maria Lopez romped to three straight crowns.

With Citroen set to leave WTCC at the end of the year, Muller has decided that the time is right to follow suit and call time on a stint in the series that has seen him score 47 wins, 119 podium finishes and over 2,600 points.

“I am not sure that age is the main factor when it comes to ending a career. It’s more a matter of desire and motivation,” Muller said.

“With all the testing, the simulator sessions, the physical training and the travel to the race venues, a season of professional motor racing requires a level of personal commitment that I am no longer prepared to put in.

“At the same time, I am at a time of my life where I want to do something else and I am happy to be able to make that decision after eleven seasons of FIA WTCC.

“I’ve had some great experiences over my career. These three seasons with Citroën Racing have been particularly special, even though I never managed to be world champion with this team. But I will always be proud of having helped to build our racing programme and develop the Citroën C-Elysée WTCC. I have also met some great people who are passionate about their job and have a fierce competitive spirit.

“Driving has been part of my daily life for so long that I can’t see myself stopping racing entirely. But I am going to spend more time with my family and developing my team, Yvan Muller Racing. Before that, though, I am going to put everything I’ve got into meeting the team’s goals.”

Lopez is also set to leave WTCC at the end of the year, having agreed a deal to race for Citroen sub-brand DS in Formula E for the all-electric series’ third season.

The 2016 WTCC season closes on November 25 at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.

Report: Sam Schmidt to receive America’s first driver’s license for semi-autonomous car

2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
May 29, 2016
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team owner Sam Schmidt is set to receive America’s first driver’s license for a semi-autonomous vehicle, according to a report from Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Schmidt sustained a spinal cord injury in a testing accident at Walt Disney World Speedway ahead of the 2000 IRL season, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

Schmidt went on to establish Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with programs in IndyCar and Indy Lights, both of which he still heads up.

Schmidt has previously completed laps behind the wheel of a modified 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray at Indianapolis in 2014 and in Long Beach last year, dubbed the ‘SAM project’ – semi-autonomous motorcar – developed with Arrow Electronics.

Schmidt controls the car using a breathing tube for acceleration and braking, and steers using his head movements that are picked up by infrared cameras.

Now, the SAM project is set to hit the road, with Las Vegas Review-Journal reporting that Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles will grant Schmidt the first road license for a semi-autonomous car in the country.

The report says that Arrow has worked closely with the Nevada DMV to update regulations so that Schmidt is able to drive on state roads.

“Nevada is leading the nation in promoting autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technologies that can bring mobility and independence to people with physical disabilities, including our wounded warriors,” officials from the Nevada DMV said.

Robert Kubica scores podium finish on Renault Sport Trophy debut at Spa

16 KUBICA Robert (POL) HAMON Christophe (FRA) RENAULT RS 01 Team Duqueine action during the 2016 Renault Sport series  at Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, September  23 to 25  - Photo Eric Vargiolu / DPPI
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Robert Kubica enjoyed a successful debut in the Renault Sport Trophy at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday, finishing third alongside Christophe Hamon.

Former BMW and Renault Formula 1 driver Kubica announced last week that he would be entering the race weekend at Spa after accepting an invitation from the French manufacturer.

Kubica spent five seasons racing in F1 and won the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix for BMW before having his stint in the series cut short after a rally crash ahead of the 2011 season.

Severe injuries sustained to his right arm and hand meant left Kubica spending a lengthy spell in rehabilitation before making his return to motorsport in the World Rally Championship.

The Pole made his final WRC appearance in January at the Monte Carlo Rally before making his circuit racing return in the 12 Hours of Mugello with Mercedes.

Kubica enjoyed his first qualifying session since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday ahead of the Renault Sport Trophy weekend, finishing third.

After seeing Hamon complete the first 10 laps of the race and suffer contact, Kubica completed the final 17 behind the wheel of the Renault R.S.01 car.

A late charge saw Kubica rise from P6 with 10 minutes remaining to cross the line third, six seconds behind race winners Raoul Owens and Fredrik Blomstedt.

Curiously, Kubica’s last F1 podium finish also came at Spa in 2010, finishing third for Renault behind Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber.

Kubica will return to Spa on Sunday for the sprint race, where he will race in the Pro class.

Alonso talks book plan, Pokemon Go and dream F1 line-up in Twitter Q&A

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 02: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda arrives at the circuit and signs autographs for fans  during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 2, 2016 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso took some time out on Thursday night to interact with his fans via a Twitter Q&A, covering a wide variety of topics.

Alonso had done a handful of ‘#AskAlo’ sessions on Twitter in the last year or so, giving his 2.42 million followers a chance to pose questions to the two-time Formula 1 world champion.

Among the topics up for debate were his dream F1 line-up – Stoffel Vandoorne and Carlos Sainz Jr. – if he ran a team, his plans for a book in the future and whether or not he plays Pokemon Go (like McLaren teammate Jenson Button, he doesn’t).

Here’s a selection of Alonso’s answers.