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.

Justin Timberlake to play this year’s U.S. Grand Prix at COTA

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Taylor Swift playing last year’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin was always going to be a hard act to match, or perhaps top.

Yet COTA has pulled it off with confirmation Wednesday that Justin Timberlake will be playing on the Saturday before this year’s race, on October 21.

Timberlake will play at the conclusion of track activity on Saturday for a full show. Tickets go on sale this Friday at 10 a.m. CT, with more info via COTA’s website. Here’s the pertinent details:

  • The concert will take place at COTA’s Super Stage Festival Lawn, not Austin360 Amphitheater
  • Seating is general admission, first come first served
  • All holders of a Saturday ticket for USGP weekend, including the 3-day GA wristband, will have access to the show

Circuit of The Americas announced a crowd of more than 80,000 last year for T-Swift, for her first and only planned concert of the year.

Timberlake is on par from a stratospheric level as Swift is. And half the draw of the COTA weekend, it seems, is ensuring you can get concertgoers to the track as well.

This should make for a fun end-of-day on Saturday.

IMS Museum to reveal A.J. Foyt exhibit in April

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It’s been 40 years since A.J. Foyt won his fourth and final Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1977. Perfect timing, then, for a special Foyt exhibit to grace the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will premiere next month.

The release from the museum is below:

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of his record-setting fourth Indianapolis 500 win, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum is proud to present a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit honoring auto racing icon A.J. Foyt, opening April 14.

A.J. Foyt: A Legendary Exhibition, presented by ABC Supply is a limited-run celebration that traces the superstar’s rise from the dirt tracks of Texas to the pinnacle of auto racing history.

Nearly three dozen cars that Foyt drove in competition will be on display, including all four of his Indianapolis 500 winning machines, the 1961 Bowes Seal Fast Special, 1964 & 1967 Sheraton-Thompson Specials, and the 1977 Gilmore Coyote.

Photo: IMS Archives

“Everyone knows that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is my favorite track and that people wouldn’t know me if it weren’t for the Indy 500, but to have the Museum put on this exhibit there, well I feel truly honored,” said the legendary Foyt. “This exhibit will give people a chance to see my winning Indy cars but also some of the other race cars I drove and won in over the years.”

In addition to several of Foyt’s IndyCars, many incredible machines representing Foyt’s career in NASCAR, USAC and road racing will be on display, many for the first time, and visitors will also have the chance to see rare memorabilia from Foyt’s personal collection.

“Based on the stuff we shipped to Indy, I think the Museum has a lot of personal memorabilia and photos that their visitors will like seeing” Foyt said. “I haven’t seen some of the cars in many, many years so to be truthful, I’m looking forward to the exhibit too!”

“A.J. Foyt is perhaps the most iconic driver in the 108-year history of the Brickyard” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum Director & Curator Ellen Bireley. “We are proud to honor this incredible champion with an exhibit of memories and memorabilia that pays tribute to one of the most diverse and successful careers in auto racing history.”

A.J. Foyt: A Legendary Exhibition is presented by ABC Supply, with additional support from Chevrolet and Al-Fe Heat Treating. The exhibit runs until October 31.

Social roundup: Media day at Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is still more than a week away, but Media Day was in full swing on Tuesday with a number of attractions for fans and media in attendance.

That being said, it’s easier to get all the pre-advance work done before cars from six different series hit the track starting on Friday, April 7. The Long Beach IndyCar race airs on April 9 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The day began with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden fielding interviews with the local L.A. affiliates for NBC, Fox, and ABC before being a attending a midday luncheon. He also did various interviews with other outlets.

There were also a number of opportunities for rides around the 1.968-mile street circuit. IndyCar drivers Zach Veach and Gabby Chaves were in charge of the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater while Scott Pruett manned driving duties in a two-seat version of his Lexus RC F GT3. Rocky Moran Sr. and Jr. also held demo rides of their own around the circuit in a Camry; James Sofronas took folks for rides in a GMG Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Formula Drift was on hand as well, though their days were spent preparing for the event. Several cars made practice runs along Seaside Way and through turns 9, 10, and 11 of the circuit.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is slated for April 7-9, with first practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series rolling off at 1:00 p.m. local time on Friday April 7.

INDYCAR reveals next round of design for 2018 common aero kit

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After the initial renderings of the 2018 common aero kit were released in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, questions then turned to when INDYCAR would release the next round of what the future of the single kit would look like.

The date was something of a moving target, without a set time piece either just before or just after the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season began with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.

That being said, today marks the arrival of round two of what the new kit will look like, revealed first on IndyCar.com. The timing works well as it’s just after St. Petersburg but before Round 2, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which runs April 9 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN to kick off the NBC Sports Group’s coverage portion of the season.

In today’s release, INDYCAR is still yet to confirm the supplier of the new common aero kit. But the car’s development remains on track to be revealed in the flesh this summer before a mid-summer testing debut.

Rendering courtesy of INDYCAR

“While this remains a work in progress, we are encouraged with where the development of the 2018 car stands,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, said in the release. “The look of the car is bold, the performance data from simulations is meeting targeted goals and safety enhancements built into the design will be substantial.”

Tino Belli, INDYCAR director of aerodynamic development, explained the design process with a focus on producing more downforce from the underside of the car rather than on top, addressing driver feedback.

“We’ve been working on the aerodynamics to suit the look, rather than the other way around,” Belli said in the release.

“We’re working on creating more of the downforce from the underwing,” Belli said. “The hole in the floor (of the undertray on this year’s car) will be sealed for the road courses and short ovals, but will still be open for the superspeedways.”

While aerodynamic targets and additional safety enhancements are set to include side impact structures in the sidepods and repositioned radiators, with turbocharger inlets moving to the inside of the radiator inlet ducts, no word was given today in terms of a windscreen or other cockpit protection enhancement device which has been rumored but not officially confirmed to be part of the 2018 kit. Belli said in the release that INDYCAR has achieved “97 percent” of its goals from developing the new car’s look and efficiency.

Of note, INDYCAR announced long-term contract extensions with four key partners, Dallara, Chevrolet, Honda and Firestone, at St. Petersburg, which was great news for the series but perhaps overshadowed in the kickoff to the new season. It further pushed the development of Frye’s much-mentioned “five-year plan” for the series.

Just because the base Dallara DW12 chassis remains as the tub does not necessarily mean it will be Dallara as the common kit supplier. Dallara’s Stefano De Ponti, director of the company’s U.S. operations, did say how much it has meant to the company to be celebrating its 20th year with INDYCAR during the St. Petersburg announcement.

“Dallara came here in 1997. That has marked the Dallara presence in North American motorsports. It was an important step,” De Ponti said at St. Petersburg.

“Obviously the plant, facility, engineering center we built in Indianapolis was, for the most part of it, obviously to support our program here as a partner with IndyCar.

“I personally wish, yes, that the extension will go beyond the set extension we have so far. We would like to be very, very clear, to be trustful and a supported partner of IndyCar as a manufacturer.

“Obviously, as an engineering company, we like competition, of course. We welcome everything that IndyCar decides to do with us for the future.

“At the end of the day, we want to be, and we are committed, to work with IndyCar for the benefit of the series. That would benefit all of us.”