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.

Liberty shareholders approve proposals for F1 takeover

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 29:  Chase Carey, Chairman of Formula One Group talks to a member of the FIA in the Paddock during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 29, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Liberty Media Corporation has taken another step towards its pending acquisition of Formula 1, following a special meeting of stockholders held today.

At the meeting, the stockholders approved proposals related to both shares and Liberty’s restated certificate of incorporation to change names from “Media Group” and the “Liberty Media Common Stock” to the “Formula One Group” and the “Liberty Formula One Common Stock,” respectively.

This leaves the last hurdle to clear for Liberty direct approval from the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) itself, with the goal of completing the transaction in full before the end of 2017’s first quarter.

Further information can be found at Liberty’s release, linked here.

How watching a go-kart race changed F1’s Valtteri Bottas’ life forever

xxxx during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 22, 2015 in Spa, Belgium.
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It was 21 years ago, but Valtteri Bottas remembers as if it was yesterday — the day that would change his life forever.

Bottas, just six years old at the time, was riding in a car with his father in their native Finland when they came upon a go-kart race taking place.

It was love at first sight for little Valtteri – and dad, too. Although they were supposed to continue on to a neighboring town of Lahti, they decided to postpone the trip and spent the rest of the day watching the racing action.

It was also the first step Bottas would take towards becoming a race car driver. It’s a journey that two decades later has now, as of Monday, brought him to a seat with the sport’s most dominant team in recent years, Mercedes AMG Petronas, and made him teammates with three-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton.

Along the way to the present, Bottas became a go-kart champion, won countless races across a number of series, and now has just one thing in mind that he’s focusing on:

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Winning a Formula 1 championship with his new team.

As the driver chosen to replace the now-retired 2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg, Bottas’ dreams have come true. But at the same time, expectations have never been higher or more demanding upon Bottas, who spent the last four seasons with the Williams F1 team.

Bottas finished 17th in his first season with Williams in 2013, then scored a career-best fourth-place showing the following season. Bottas was fifth in 2015 before slipping to eighth last season, as the car regressed.

But now, Williams is in Bottas’ rearview mirror and all he hopes to see is clear pathways going forward, hopefully with him in the lead and every other driver chasing his Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Silver Arrow.

Yet having the best team in the sport is no guarantee of success, Bottas prudently says.

“It would be nice to know the answer to the question of how you become Formula 1 World Champion,” Bottas said in a story on the MercedesAMGF1.com website. “But there are so many factors involved. It’s not just about you as an individual.

“Even if you’re the best driver, you’re not going to win anything if your engine packs up ten times during the season. As a driver, you have to concentrate on your performance and give everything for the team. On your own, you don’t stand a chance.”

But one of the reasons Mercedes chose Bottas over other F1 drivers is his determination and drive – both in the car and in life.

It’s something that traces back to the first two times he climbed into a go-kart to begin his path to F1: finishing third in his first race and winning his second. A few years later at the age of 13, even though he was larger and heavier than most of his competitors, Bottas would win the Finnish go-kart championship.

“I had to do everything I could to make my dream come true,” Bottas said. That included going on a diet and physical regimen that strengthened both his body as well as his championship-winning chances.

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“This was the turning point, at which I became professional and saw racing as more than just a hobby and a fun ride,” Bottas said.

Now he has perhaps the most fun – and demanding – ride he’s ever had. But just like he did when he climbed behind the wheel of his first go-kart at the age of seven, one thing has remained a constant for the flying Finn.

“I never give up,” Bottas said. “I still cherish my ambition of winning the world title. I will do everything I can to achieve that. It’s my life goal right now.

“There is no better feeling than being in the pits on Sunday – race day. The mechanics start the engine; you hear it and you feel it, and you know this precious gem will be in your hands for the next two hours. It’s now all up to you.”

And while Bottas readily admits “I’m living the dream every day,” he’s not letting the team he’s with, or the success it has had over the years, get to his head.

“Ultimately, I’m just an average guy from Nastola (his hometown of 15,000) in Finland, who just happens to be a Formula One driver.”

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Loyalty brought Felipe Massa out of retirement, back to Williams

Just a few months after waving goodbye to F1, Felipe Massa is waving hello again with his return to Williams for the 2017 season.
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Felipe Massa is a number of things, including a great driver, a fan favorite, a mentor to young drivers and a great representative for Formula 1.

But perhaps above all those attributes are the word that best describes Massa: loyal.

When Massa retired at the end of the 2016 F1 season from Williams, he was pretty sure his F1 days were forever behind him. But when teammate Valtteri Bottas surprised everyone by leaving the team to replace retired champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Massa’s sense of loyalty kicked in.

The Brazilian driver knew that 2017 would be a very important year for Williams, as the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary. He also knew young teammate Lance Stroll needed a mentor to guide him through the rigors of F1.

Given all Williams had done for him the past three seasons, Massa felt he owed his old team something back: namely himself and his talent behind the wheel.

Ergo, goodbye retirement, welcome back to Williams. It wasn’t about money, but something much more valuable that you can’t put a price on.

“I have a strong love for Williams,” Massa said in a Q&A on WilliamsF1.com. “I have enjoyed the last three years with the team, and therefore coming back to help give stability and experience to drive things forward in 2017 was something that felt right to do.

“When I joined Williams back in 2014 I found a team – and a family – that I have loved being a part of. I certainly haven’t lost the desire to race and fight on track. Whatever I would have turned my hand to this year, I would have been putting 100 percent effort into doing the best job that I can, and if I didn’t have that passion, I would not have agreed to return.”

While the 35-year-old Massa said his return to F1 and Williams is just for 2017, with all the elements in play, particularly since Bottas left, Massa feels reinvigorated. It may seem like he’s racing for a new team, even though he’s returning to the same team he left less than two months ago.

And that’s where the beauty of his loyalty truly is: Massa made it very clear that the only F1 team he would ever consider ending retirement for was, one and the same, Williams.

“My return is not about seeing Formula 1 as the best option, but is about seeing the role at Williams as the best option,” Massa said. “I would not have returned for any other team.”

And if retirement for the second time is in his future after the 2017 season, Massa will leave with no regrets.

“Whatever happens this season, I will always leave the sport with my head held high,” he said.

While he wishes Bottas the best with his new team, Massa is also very keen on working with Stroll.

“I’m looking forward to working with Lance, having known him for a long time,” Massa said. “He has proved in the championships he has competed in so far that he deserves this opportunity, and it’s great to welcome new talent into Formula 1.

“Lance may be young, but Williams has a history of bringing young drivers into the sport. He knows there is a steep learning curve ahead, but motorsport is a team sport and I look forward supporting him in any way I can.

“Valtteri has been offered a fantastic opportunity and, as a result, an opportunity arose for me. When the media began reporting that I might return, I was touched by the response from so many fans who wanted to see me back in the sport.

“That was certainly a factor in the decision, so I’d like to thank the fans for their support. But, at the end of the day, when I received the call it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was Williams!”

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Porsche sets sail for new voyage with new 911 RSR into 2017

Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Porsche and 911 are as inextricably linked as bread and butter. Porsche and a mid-rear-engined 911, however, are as disparate as chalk and cheese.

Yet for 2017, the new era of Porsche’s 911 – its flagship car – marks its most radical reinvention from its usual rear-engine flat-six engine that is the hallmark, with the engine now ahead of the rear axle.

The new 911 is a normally aspirated beast and shakes up the norm for all its drivers, its engineers and its team.

Per Porsche: “The suspension, body structure, aerodynamic concept, engine and transmission have all been designed from scratch for the 2017 season. Depending on the size of the restrictor, the motor, which is now positioned in front of the rear axle, puts out approximately 510 hp. Thanks to the modern, lightweight normally aspirated engine, the designers were able to install a larger rear diffuser than in years past. Combined with a top-mounted rear wing, the level of downforce and the aerodynamic efficiency have been significantly improved.”

This new car looks to add to Porsche’s legacy at Daytona. From 1966 to Daytona, Porsche has 22 overall wins (11 straight from 1977 to 1987) and a total of 76 class wins. The most recent class victory came with the North American debut of the previous generation 911 RSR in 2014. That record is made of 27 GT class wins, one SGS class and GX class win each.

In the stacked GT Le Mans class, Porsche stands alone with the only all-new car for 2017, while Ford (second year of the GT), Ferrari (second year of the 488 GTE), BMW (second year of the M6 GTLM) and Chevrolet (fourth year of the Corvette C7.R) are all well into their current cycles of their newest cars.

That makes Porsche an outlier and arguably the manufacturer to watch throughout the year, as the new car progresses from start-to-finish over the course of the season in both the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship, where the rebranded Porsche GT Team has parallel two-car programs.

On the IMSA front, it’s not just the car that’s new, but also both driver lineups – only two years removed from a dream 2015 season that saw them dominate the GTLM class and score a shock, but well-judged, overall win in the torrential rains at Petit Le Mans.

Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber earn justifiable promotions to Porsche’s LMP1 team in the WEC, but it left a couple openings on the GTLM team. With Fred Makowiecki then shifted away from a full-season IMSA ride, that meant three spots opened up.

For the Morgan Brady-led, CORE autosport-run U.S. Porsche team, Patrick Pilet, the 2015 GTLM champion and lone holdover, will continue into 2017 with ex-privateer Porsche driver and past factory BMW driver Dirk Werner in the No. 911 car.

An entirely new lineup of Laurens Vanthoor (formerly of Audi) and Kevin Estre will be in the No. 912 car, and this presents arguably the most intriguing of pairings given both drivers’ youth but already ton of experience. Makowiecki (No. 911) and Richard Lietz (No. 912) are the third drivers. The two cars clocked 1,824 miles at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

Estre. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Estre. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Estre, who joined Porsche as a factory driver last year, said he and Vanthoor already get on great from their European racing experience, and are looking forward to combining as teammates rather than trying to beat each other.

“We drove one time together in Le Mans in LMP2 with OAK (in 2015, in a Ligier JS P2 Honda),” Estre told NBC Sports. “We know each other as teammates, but more as competitors. It’s been really good so far. We’re both speaking French and have a German wife!

“The connection is really important for endurance races. It’s good to feel confident, and speak about a lot of stuff. So far it’s perfect. I’m confident we’ll work well together with our ways, being pretty similar of GT3 to Porsche. It’s quite new and with Porsche in GTLM.”

Estre offered advice for Werner and Vanthoor, who join Porsche as new factory drivers this year, on how to integrate into the culture of one of the world’s most successful manufacturers.

“I’ve done a lot before with Porsche in German Carrera Cup and Supercup,” he explained. “I knew the German culture. But being new as a factory driver is a bit special. You need to understand the team… you need to know CORE, Manthey, and Porsche AG in general.

“Everything is new. It’s a lot different. But with time, you know the people. You know where to go if you have a problem, or which question to ask to which people. I’m a lot more confident and more experienced now.”

Estre, who starred with McLaren in Pirelli World Challenge in 2015, had a mixed season in 2016 where he ran a mix of IMSA and European races. Having a single focus back on North America full-time is exciting for the Frenchman.

“I was happy to do different things but knowing you’re doing just one championship is different than three races here or there. As a driver, you look forward to winning something and to have a full season here is good for the U.S. I did IMSA three years ago in GTD, so GTLM will be new.”

Marco Ujhasi, Director of GT Factory Motorsports for Porsche, said the test went well for the design of the program.

“The test miles that we covered over the last three days in preparation for the race were very important. We managed to tick off all the points we’d scheduled for ourselves and now we have a much better understanding of the car on this racetrack,” he said in a release.

“In addition, we experienced changeable and very diverse track conditions. It was dry and wet, warm and cold – precisely what you need in race preparations to be primed for all eventualities. We feel very well prepared for the race and the premiere of our new 911 RSR. In this respect, these three days in Florida were very successful.”

As noted above, Porsche won in GTLM in the U.S. debut of its previous 911 RSR in 2014, with Tandy, Pilet and Lietz. An encore with this car’s debut would be another interesting story in and of itself.