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.

MRTI Barber Notebook: Saturday

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Jamin Rolls to Indy Lights Win as Chaos Reigns on the Start

Nico Jamin added his name to the list of drivers who have won in all three of the Mazda Road to Indy championships by securing his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory. The Frenchman dove inside polesitter Kyle Kaiser for the lead entering turn five on lap 4 and went unchallenged from there. Kaiser held on for second while Neil Alberico completed the podium. His Carlin teammates Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five.

“It was just incredible – when I got to Victory Lane and everyone wanted to talk to me, I didn’t know what to say! I was so emotional,” said an elated Jamin, who joins Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, and Aaron Telitz as drivers who have won in all three of the MRTI series.

Jamin added that he needed to be on the attack immediately, since it can be difficult to pass at Barber Motorsports Park. “Here, you can start on pole and get away or you have to get it done early, so I was in attack mode right away. I went on push-to-pass, broke late and made the pass stick,” he said of his move on Kaiser.

The race was not without controversy. Kaiser jumped slightly early on the initial start, forcing officials to wave it off. When Kaiser subsequently slowed, outside pole sitter Colton Herta tried to dive inside of Kaiser to avoid him, but clipped the left-rear of Kaiser’s car. “I saw the start was waved off so I slowed up and I felt a little nudge from behind. I feel bad for Colton but these things happen,” Kaiser said of the incident.

Start of Indy Lights Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The contact damaged Herta’s front wing and forced him to pit for repairs. He also received a penalty for not adhering to pace car speed and had to restart at the back of the pack. He eventually rebounded to finish tenth.

Further, the incident saw Pato O’Ward get hung up on the back of Santi Urrutia’s car while Aaron Telitz clipped the back of teammate Shelby Blackstock. O’Ward and Telitz suffered a damaged front wings, while Urrutia had a broken rear wing and damaged suspension. O’Ward and Telitz resumed after repairs, finishing eighth and 13th respectively, while Urrutia lost several laps in the pits before rejoining the fight. He eventually pulled off with more suspension problems.

Herta retains the points lead, but now leads Kaiser by 10 points and Aaron Telitz by 13. Race 2 rolls off at 12:45 p.m. ET (11:45 a.m. local time) on Sunday.

Results from Race 1 are below.

Askew Dominates USF2000 Race 2

While chaos hit Indy Lights, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda saw continued domination from Oliver Askew, who again led every lap on his way to victory in Race 2 to record a weekend sweep of poles and victories in USF2000.

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He led second-place Kaylen Frederick, who also finished second to Askew on Friday, by nearly three seconds, while Parker Thompson was able to beat Rinus Van Kalmthout for the final spot on the podium.

“It’s a dream come true. We had a fantastic car so we had the chance to do well this weekend and I just took it,” Askew said of the weekend.

He also added that his winning streak (he has won three races in a row dating back to St. Petersburg) does not undermine the rest of the USF2000 field, and he pretends he is always qualifying in order to force himself to drive at his maximum. “The main goal is the championship but a win pays the most so this is fantastic. I’m probably the most anxious for qualifying because, as close as the field is, that can be the race right there. Again today, I pretended it was a qualifying session and just put in the laps,” he detailed.

Askew’s win puts him 36 points clear of Frederick and Van Kalmthout, who are currently tied for second in the championship standings. Results from Race 2 can be found below.

Andretti, Rahal at loss for words after tough Barber qualifying (VIDEO)

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Marco Andretti’s weekend speed went missing when it counted. Graham Rahal, meanwhile, has been unable to find it all weekend.

So are the woes of the two famous sons-of-legends after qualifying 13th and 21st for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as they look to bank a result in the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Starting with Andretti first, the driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda had what on paper seemed to be his best chance to advance to his first Firestone Fast Six appearance since St. Petersburg 2014 after pacing Friday’s second practice and keeping up his recent trend of being fast on Friday.

“We just need to do it when it counts tomorrow. You know, it’s very important to qualify well here, so I’m pleased that we have the pace to hopefully be able to do that. But yeah, I mean, so far, so good. We just need to replicate it tomorrow,” Andretti said after Friday’s practice.

But by less than one hundredth of a second, Andretti missed out. With a best time of 1:07.5405 just adrift of Max Chilton in sixth in Group 1, Q1 at 1:07.5374, he was stuck in an unlucky 13th.

“It takes putting it together. A little too loose there but I should have got it in. With the margin this morning I should be in. This one hurts,” Andretti told NBCSN.

‪Went wicked loose on reds and missed it by 4 thousandths today. That's @IndyCar . Looking forward to tomorrow. ‬

A post shared by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Rahal, meanwhile, has felt the pain of only being a single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team this year up against the mights of all the other multi-car teams in the field. Whereas in the past two years, Rahal and RLL have overachieved, this year he’s said they just haven’t been able to replicate that success with the No. 15 Honda.

He’ll start 21st in a race where he was looking to go one spot better after a pair of runner-up finishes the last two years here. Of course Sebastien Bourdais won from 21st at St. Petersburg, but that marked the first time a race winner started last since Scott Dixon won from 22nd at Mid-Ohio in 2014. Rahal had three starts of 20th or worse last season (20th at Watkins Glen, 24th at IndyCar Grand Prix after a penalty and 26th at Indianapolis 500) but hasn’t started last in a race since 2014 at Long Beach, when he rolled off 23rd.

“We’ve got everything (wrong) this weekend. I had nothing else. There was no more speed in my car,” Rahal lamented to NBCSN. “I put in one miracle lap this morning and couldn’t get within half a second again. We just haven’t been very good this year and haven’t performed at a very high level. We can’t seem to get the tire to bite the road at all.

“For us as a single-car team it’s impossible. We don’t have anyone else to try anything different. St. Pete we struggled. Long Beach we struggled. Here it’s been a struggle all weekend. Something fundamentally might have changed. Starting last on merit, I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career.”

Power, Penske, Chevrolet dominate IndyCar Barber qualifying (VIDEO)

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Will Power scored the pole position for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as part of a Team Penske and Chevrolet dominated qualifying session for the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at Barber Motorsports Park (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But with polesitters having finished only 19th and ninth to start 2017 – Power at St. Petersburg and teammate Helio Castroneves at Long Beach – it remains to be seen whether this will translate on Sunday after a weekend where Penske and Chevrolet have struck back after Honda’s fast start. Meanwhile Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe have won from 21st and fourth, respectively.

Power’s pole Saturday in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, at a lap of 1:06.9614 around the 2.3-mile road course is the 46th of his career and fourth at Barber (2010, 2011 and 2014) and he’s won twice here before, in 2011 from pole and in 2012 from ninth on the grid.

“We weren’t good on the used reds, but we worked at it and the car was really good. We did feel a bit heavy in that session but the car was really good. All the credit to the Verizon Team Penske guys. Starting on pole here is important. The weather looks a little bit iffy but it is what it is. That’s all you can do. We’ll try to go out and have fun,” Power told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee.

Penske teammates Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud completed the top three, as Penske and Chevrolet score their third pole in as many races to start the year.

“Man it was just one little blink and you miss it. Long Beach was precision… here was out of control!” Castroneves laughed after coming up just short in second, speaking to NBCSN’s Marty Snider.

Pagenaud told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, “We had a great car. The Menards car was fast but we went a little too aggressive for qualifying. We tried, and it was a good battle with Will and Helio.”

Scott Dixon will start fourth, top Honda on the grid, as he goes for his first Barber win and first win of 2017. He’s started between third and fifth in all eight Barber races in his career and has six podiums, all either second or third place.

Long Beach sparring partners Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe round out the Firestone Fast Six, as Hinchcliffe looks for his second straight win after winning last time out while Hunter-Reay seeks to end a year-and-a-half winless drought and secure his third win at Barber (2013, 2014).

The big surprise from the preliminary rounds of qualifying was second free practice pacesetter Marco Andretti getting bounced out in Q1, as part of an overall struggle for the Andretti Autosport team where he, Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi all failed to advance. Hunter-Reay was the only driver of that team’s quartet who did.

Hinchcliffe led the opening round of qualifying in his Group 1, ahead of Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin, Ed Jones and Max Chilton. Newgarden had an off-and-on moment at Turns 2 and 3 but glided out of the grass without damage to his No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

The big surprise from Q1, Group 1 was the failure of Andretti to advance in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda, after another weekend of good practice pace. Andretti missed advancing by just 0.031 of a second (1:07.5405 versus Chilton’s 1:07.5374) and will start 13th on Sunday.

“It takes putting it together. A little too loose there but I should have got it in. With the margin this morning I should be in. This one hurts,” Andretti told NBCSN.

Charlie Kimball and the Ed Carpenter Racing teammates, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach, also failed to advance from that group.

In Group 2, Q1, a stacked session saw the usual suspects advance – Power, Dixon, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais made it through. Power clocked the only 1:06 lap of Q1 at 1:06.9311.

Left on the outside were Takuma Sato, Carlos Munoz, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Graham Rahal. Rahal will now start 21st and last, and likely will need a strategy gamble to leapfrog his way up the order in his pursuit of a third straight runner-up finish at Barber, or to try to go one spot better and duplicate Bourdais’ last-to-first victory at St. Petersburg.

“We’ve got everything (wrong) this weekend. I had nothing else. There was no more speed in my car,” Rahal lamented to NBCSN. “I put in one miracle lap this morning and couldn’t get within half a second again. We just haven’t been very good this year and haven’t performed at a very high level. We can’t seem to get the tire to bite the road at all.

“For us as a single-car team it’s impossible. We don’t have anyone else to try anything different. St. Pete we struggled. Long Beach we struggled. Here it’s been a struggle all weekend. Something fundamentally might have changed. Starting last on merit, I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career.”

Q2 saw all four past Barber pole winners, Power, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud advance through along with Dixon and Hinchcliffe, the latter two continuing their streaks as the only two drivers to make it to every Firestone Fast Six session this season.

Left on the outside looking in were Newgarden, Aleshin, Chilton, Kanaan, Jones and Bourdais. Newgarden missed out by less than a tenth of a second.

Newgarden told NBCSN after his near miss, “We tried to go on the used reds from the first round of qualifying. It was a great call. But today all the Penske cars had great pace and we just missed out. I just couldn’t get quite the speed that I had before.”

Meanwhile points leader Bourdais told NBCSN, “I still don’t know how we even made the Fast 12. We’ve been struggling fighting the understeer and we haven’t made big gains all weekend. We took a big swing at it in qualifying. We tried something different – it didn’t work. But sometimes it’s good to find out when nothing works. It’s been a tough weekend. We have a really good, small group of guys. We just haven’t had it this weekend though.”

Power got back into the 1:06 bracket on his final lap in the Fast Six, with a time of 1:06.9614 around the 2.3-mile circuit. That supplanted Castroneves’ best time of 1:07.1429, with Pagenaud third in his quest to defend this race win of a year ago at 1:07.3817.

The unofficial grid is below:

Montoya relishing part-time role; looks forward to Alonso reunion

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Juan Montoya was at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend to announce a new Team Penske partner in Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which will also serve as his sponsor during the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil next month.

Montoya was relegated to a part-time driver in 2017, with the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Indy 500 currently his only scheduled races. Yet, while some drivers may become impatient and frustrated with the circumstances, Montoya is relishing the chance.

“The opportunity with Penske came to do this and I thought it would be… for long-term, would be the best thing for me and it’s good. I’m really happy,” he said in a press conference at Bristol. “If you are going to go race you might as well come do it with best people you can, and to be able to get a relationship with the guys at Fitzgerald: it’s amazing.”

The 41-year-old referenced that he and Penske had been working on an effort for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway events over the last year, but the hunt for sponsorship was something Montoya was not involved in.

“They just tell me ‘Come, we are announcing your sponsor,'” he joked. “Penske is very quiet. I have been here three and a half years and you learn not to ask too many questions.”

Juan Montoya’s No. 22 entry for the Indy 500. Photo: Team Penske

Of course, Montoya is not exactly sitting idle. He admitted to keeping busy with karting efforts, and is constantly in contact with engineer Raul Prados, who will lead the engineering effort on Montoya’s No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

“This morning: his morning text to me is ’21 days.’  Yesterday it was ’22 days to go.’  Every day, he is more intense,” he said of his new engineer.

“He sees this as such a huge opportunity to win Indy. For me, it’s exciting. I’m not thinking about points. I’m not thinking about anything. I know I have a good shot of winning. I feel really good. It should be fun.”

Consequently, Montoya does not feel like he is behind as the month of May looms. This was evidenced at a test at Barber Motorsports Park in March. “I went to Barber to test and actually most of the morning I was quicker than all my teammates,” he quipped. “I was like ‘I don’t know.’ It was good. Honestly, (during) that Barber test is the best I’ve run ever at Barber.”

There is also the added storyline of a reunion with the incoming Fernando Alonso, against whom Montoya raced in Formula 1 from 2001 to 2006 (except 2002, when Alonso was a test driver for Renault’s Formula 1 effort and did not race).

Juan Montoya announces his Indy 500 sponsor. Photo: Team Penske

Like everyone else, Montoya was caught off guard by the announcement.

“If you would have told me I was going to run a race ever against Alonso, (I thought it) would be an endurance race or something not in Indy to be honest,” he said of Alonso’s entry. “I think it’s great. I think having Fernando is going to be a really good day for motorsports, not only for IndyCar, but I think the attention overall for seeing Fernando and myself and everybody running Indy is going to be really big.”

When asked about the biggest challenge Alonso may face, Montoya zeroed in on two things. The first: the crowd.

“It is so many people around you. I think that’s a little bit hard for him from what he is used to,” he said of the atmosphere.

“In Formula One, and he has been doing that for a lot of years, we started the same year together when I was there in F1, so he’s been doing it for a long time: It’s just you have your own space and people really respect your space and here, no. The fans, the sponsors, everybody are there and everybody wants a picture and you’ve got to please them.”

The other challenging aspect he mentioned was the characteristics of the car and the track. But, he detailed that the May 3 test should help Alonso get up to speed.

“I think the good thing with a full day of testing: he will get a bit of an idea of what he needs,” Montoya added. “Just good to have a day with no pressure where you can build up and you understand what it takes. I think it will be fine. He is with a good team and they always run well there as well. It will be interesting.”

In terms of his own effort, Montoya is hoping his status as a part-time driver means Penske will experiment a little, especially when it comes to engine tuning. “I’m hoping they do. I don’t know how it works, but I know they have the knock levels and things they have to look after (in) the engine. But, if you are honestly in my position, the engine isn’t going anywhere afterwards, so might as well go for broke. I’m in. That’s what you are there for.”

As noted above, Montoya makes his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series at next month’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.