MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 2

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Yesterday my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a look back at some of the key players from this 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, in examining the goods and bads this year. Today, we pick our top five stories of the year to date, in no particular order:

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five:

Andretti’s assault on the season: There is no question who the best team has been thus far this year: Andretti Autosport is firing on all cylinders. Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay has come out motivated and determined to silence the critics who said he “lucked” into last year’s championship and is driving like a man possessed – he has six podiums when no one else has more than four, a pair of dominant wins and his qualifying has improved.

Engineering changes in the offseason have actually played to their benefit; renewed with Craig Hampson after his rookie season in 2011, James Hinchcliffe has a series-high three wins and is poised for title contention, Marco Andretti’s offseason work has come to fruition with a solid start to the year, and E.J. Viso and Michael Cannon, together again, have produced some outstanding qualifying efforts that haven’t yet borne fruit in the race. Even rookie Carlos Munoz stunned at Indianapolis by qualifying and finishing second.

Parity early ceding to “big team” rise: Through the seventh race of the year at Detroit, 13 different drivers from eight different teams had scored podium finishes. In the last three races, those numbers have dropped to five and three, respectively. The manic stretch of six races in five weekends has been the ultimate strain on crews and the underdogs who starred early in the season are starting to slip back, if slightly. The authoritative nature of the Andretti Autosport and Team Penske squads, in particular, has started to emerge.

Ganassi more than Honda struggling: Honda hasn’t had the easiest first half but on the days that they have come good, it’s been other teams – Foyt, Coyne and Schmidt – delivering the goods rather than Target Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s not as though Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti have forgotten how to drive, but adjusting to this year’s 2013 Firestone tire compounds has been a challenge, as has nailing the setup. A year with only one podium finish and no wins through 10 races is nothing short of a shock.

KV’s changing fortunes: KV always seems on the verge of entering IndyCar’s “top team tier,” but its form is so erratic that it can never truly be mentioned in the same breath as an Andretti, a Penske or a Ganassi. Tony Kanaan’s been revitalized with Simona de Silvestro there to push him, as ever, his oval form has been stellar – including a popular and overdue first Indianapolis 500 victory. But man, for de Silvestro, she needs the road and street courses to come back up. A relatively promising start to the year saw her score three top-10 finishes in the first four races, and feature more regularly at the sharp end of the leaderboard. But on the ovals, she’s been a disappointment, and I’m not sure how much of it is driver versus her car and engine. Regardless, her fast start has fizzled, and she needs to recapture it in the second half.

“Turbo” or bust?: There’s undoubtedly going to be more to come on this front when it premieres July 17, but much of the second half of the season will revolve around how well DreamWorks Animation’s “Turbo” will do at the box office, and the impact it has to a broader sphere of potential viewers. In the first half of the year, we’ve seen the Sunoco/ “Turbo” car on track on several occasions – Kanaan picked up the backing for a four-race deal and has two podiums in his first two races in these colors. Townsend Bell ran the livery for Panther Racing at Indianapolis. Helio Castroneves also had “Turbo” on at the start of the year in an associate sponsorship role. Stay tuned for more.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five:

Tony Kanaan finally wins the ‘500’: We had seen Tony Kanaan come so close to winning the biggest race in the world on numerous occasions. In 2004, he was running second to Buddy Rice when a severe thunderstorm ended the race with 20 laps left. In 2009, he was running third when he suffered a drive shaft failure and slammed into both the backstretch and Turn 3 walls. The next year, he charged from 33rd and last all the way to second before having to pit for fuel with four laps left. But in his 12th Brickyard start this past May, the fan favorite finally got to drink the milk after getting past Ryan Hunter-Reay on a Lap 198 restart. To say it was a well-deserved victory for Kanaan is a vast understatement.

Small teams have their days: With the level of talent as high as it has been in a long while, any victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series these days is a serious accomplishment. In the first half of the season, we saw several of the series’ smaller teams come up big – none as big as KV Racing Technology, who won the Indy 500 with Kanaan. But let’s not forget A.J. Foyt Racing’s first checkered flag in over a decade at Long Beach with Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing’s triumph at Detroit (Race 1) with Mike Conway, and Sam Schmidt’s win in the second Detroit race with Simon Pagenaud. Sato and Pagenaud’s wins were their first in their IndyCar careers.

Ganassi off-Target: After a mixed 2012 season for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, I think we all figured a year’s worth of experience on the Dallara DW12 would enable them to find the “sweet spot” and get their drivers, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, back to their normal, dominant selves. But the turnaround hasn’t come in the first half of 2013. Granted, Honda could be doing better but it’s been really surprising at times to see how far off the pace Franchitti and Dixon have looked. Still, no one is going to count this first-class team completely out, not with their resources or pair of “all-world” drivers.

Let’s race two: When former INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard (now with ‘rural lifestyle’ TV network RFD-TV) unveiled the doubleheader format last year for Detroit, Toronto and Houston, the usual “gimmick” charges got thrown around a bit. And there were concerns about how the teams would grind through two full races in one weekend. But the first of those doubleheaders on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park went off smoothly, even if some of the on-track proceedings were cringe-worthy (see my Worst First-Half Race Award). The event also pulled in a hefty three-day weekend crowd as well. Perhaps Bernard was on to something with these doubleheaders.

An emotional issue: INDYCAR took some heat following the Detroit doubleheader for fining Sebastian Saavedra $30,000 after he flipped off Marco Andretti, and putting Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais on probation – Power for throwing his gloves at Bourdais following an accident and Bourdais for comments toward officials on pit road. It all led to questions about INDYCAR muzzling their drivers’ personalities, and with the series fighting for any public attention it can get outside of the Month of May, those questions may be valid. “If a guy gets upset and throws a glove or something like that – it’s a glove, it’s not going to hurt anybody,” Helio Castroneves told the Associated Press at Texas on the subject. “…You can’t just start throwing fines just because the guy had a bad day.”

Comedian Adam Carolla makes pro racing debut in Trans Am

Adam Carolla pilots the No. 33 GoShare Corvette at Willow Springs International Raceway. Photo: Burtin Racing
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As the host of such shows as CarCast, Ace on the House, and Adam Carolla and Friends Build Stuff Live, and with a massive classic car collection to boot, funnyman Adam Carolla is an unapologetic gearhead who is well-versed in the car industry. He even made a documentary honoring Paul Newman in recent years. However, he recently took his love of all things automotive one step further: he contested his first professional car race.

He joined the Burtin Racing team, which fields Corvette C7.Rs in the Trans Am presented by Pirelli West Coast Championship, at California’s Willow Springs International Raceway for the High Desert Challenge, the season opener for Trans Am’s 2017 season. He piloted their No. 33 GoShare entry as a teammate to Richard Wall, who signed as a last-minute entrant for team’s the No. 7 machine.

Carolla was not daunted by the challenge. He quickly came to grips with the 850-horsepower beast and qualified a solid fifth for the 100-mile feature. In the race itself, he worked his way up to third before facing a tough challenge from Trans Am veteran and former champion Greg Pickett, who previously ran the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing effort in the American Le Mans Series and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Photo: Burtin Racing

However, Carolla was unfazed by Pickett’s advance and he held off the former champion to claim third, not far behind teammate Wall, who crossed the line in second. Tomy Drissi won the event in the No. 8 Ghost in The Shell Chevrolet Corvette.

For Carolla, simply contesting the Trans Am event was an honor. “For me, Trans Am has always been huge,” said Carolla, who earned the COOLSHIRT Systems “Cool Move of the Race” award for his performance.

“I have old Trans Am cars from the 70’s and 80’s. I have some 2.5 (liter) Trans Am cars from the 70’s and I have Paul Newman cars that were raced in Trans Am. So just the idea of being asked to race in the modern Trans Am was a huge honor. Just being able to hold my own in modern Trans Am was exciting to me.”

Team owner Claudio Burtin was ecstatic with Carolla’s performance. “I think we all have to take our hat off to Adam Carolla on his debut in Trans Am,” he said of Carolla. “This is a fast and difficult track at Willow Springs, and the team is ecstatic with Adam’s podium finish. GoShare is thrilled with the results and we will work to improve one step higher on the podium next time.”

The Trans Am presented by Pirelli West Championships resume action on April 29-30 at Auto Club Speedway.

Preferred Freezer Services expands partnership with Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing

Mike Finnegan/Ed Carpenter Racing
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Preferred Freezer Services, which has been a sponsor of Ed Carpenter Racing and driver J.R. Hildebrand since 2014, is set to expand its partnership with both driver and team. Hildebrand’s No. 21 Chevrolet with sport the white and blue Preferred Freezer Services livery at four races during the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the first being at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 7-9. The expansion also includes the entire month of May, which will see the brand on the No. 21 for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. They will return as a primary sponsor for the Honda Indy Toronto in July and will be an associate sponsor throughout the season.

“Preferred Freezer Services was a big part of helping me get to running just the Indy 500 with ECR the first year in 2014. We’ve been fortunate to see the program grow and help it expand over the last few years,” Hildebrand said of the relationship. “I’m really excited to be able to continue that partnership and have them on board for a few more races this year! It is great to work with these guys again and I can’t wait to kick it off at such an awesome event as Long Beach.”

As Hildebrand explained, the partnership between sponsor, driver and team dates back to 2014, when Preferred Freezer Services adorned a then one-off No. 21 entry for Hildebrand, incidentally his first start for Ed Carpenter Racing. They expanded their partnership in 2015, adorning Hildebrand’s entry at that year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indy 500. Their presence grew even more last year, when they appeared on the cars of Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden at both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hildebrand has finished in top ten in the last three Indianapolis 500 mile races. However, his best finish remains his infamous second place at the 2011 race, in which he crashed in the final corner while leading, which yielded victory to Dan Wheldon.

Pippa Mann returns to Dale Coyne Racing for fifth straight Indy 500

Photo: IndyCar
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Dale Coyne Racing has confirmed Pippa Mann will be back in the team’s third car for the 2017 Indianapolis 500, which will mark her fifth consecutive year with the team and sixth start in the race overall.

She joins Sebastien Bourdais and rookie Ed Jones as Coyne’s three drivers in for the race, as the Coyne team is expected to focus just on these three after running four cars last year.

“I’m very happy to be rejoining Dale Coyne Racing for my fifth consecutive year with the team at the 101st Indy 500,” Mann said in a release.

“Dale has invested heavily in the team over the winter, and it’s an exciting time to be part of his organization. I’m looking forward to working with the same familiar faces from my 2016 campaign, like my race engineer Rob Ridgely, as well as working with the new members of the team, including my new teammates Sebastien (Bourdais) and Ed (Jones). I’m thrilled to be getting back on the race track this May for my sixth Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Mann continues her relationship with Susan G. Komen, the supporters of the pink No. 63 Honda for the last three years in an effort which first began in 2014.

As she’s done for the past four consecutive years, Mann will continue to raise awareness for the Get Involved Campaign alongside her racing program. This year, the campaign that raises money for Susan G. Komen® is partnering with Auction Cause, a premier cause marketing agency, that will run the auction on eBay for Charity. The campaign will launch May 1 and close the week following the Indy 500. The funds raised will be used to support Komen’s global breast cancer research, and community based programs throughout the U.S.

Komen continues as a key partner and Mann has announced another partnership with OrthoIndy, with further partnerships to be released soon.

“I’m also excited about the link up with Auction Cause and eBay for Charity this May,” she added. “They have so much experience running online campaigns, I feel like it’s a huge step for me, and for the Get Involved Campaign to partner with them. This new format has allowed me to reach out to more drivers, get them involved with more signed items, and I’m hoping we’re able to reach more race fans, and raise even more money for Susan G. Komen than we have ever done before.”

“It’s always a pleasure to have Pippa on board for the Indy 500 and to help promote the Get Involved Campaign, raising funds for Susan G. Komen,” Coyne said. “Pippa works hard every year to put together this program and to race in the Indy 500. With her perseverance and enthusiasm for our sport, it’s only fitting that we continue this relationship that started five years ago.”

Newgarden hails ‘spectacular’ Montoya after JPM’s first 2017 test

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At 26 years old, Josef Newgarden was watching Juan Pablo Montoya win races in CART, then Formula 1, then NASCAR as his own career was starting out.

When Montoya returned to IndyCar in 2014 at age 38, Newgarden was just 23, and the two had the chance to share a race track together for the first time.

After Newgarden’s subsequent rise over the years, he was scouted by Team Penske, and eventually signed to replace Montoya in the team’s No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

But Montoya remains part of the Team Penske landscape in 2017, driving the team’s fifth car during the month of May at both the IndyCar Grand Prix in Indianapolis and the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He’s also been mentioned as the leading candidate to drive with Penske’s highly likely but not officially confirmed future sports car program, which Penske discussed openly during a media roundtable at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener.

At last week’s test at Barber Motorsports Park, Newgarden and Montoya had the chance to work together as teammates and as Newgarden explained, having the chance to study his predecessor’s data was something he relished.

“Juan’s fun to be around. He’s an interesting guy,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “He’s so competitive… and you can tell how competitive he is interacting with him. But it’s fun to look at his data, and have the privilege to look at that.

“I’m excited to see that at Indianapolis, because that’s the big race for all of us together at Team Penske.”

Montoya has mentioned his appreciation for Newgarden in the past, particularly after the two raced so closely for position at the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America last season.

Newgarden said he’s looked up to Montoya for years and seeing him in this element provided such a rare glimpse into his world.

“The level of respect I have for Juan is tremendous,” he said. “He’s been so spectacular, and is even more so on ovals. I’ll be so thankful to get the chance to look at his data.”

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Newgarden, who today is promoting the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 9, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and has that sandwiched in-between two tests at the Indianapolis oval. Team Penske used a team test last Friday and will be back in action as part of a Chevrolet manufacturer test on Saturday.

“It’s a great couple days to get my feet wet,” he said. “I hadn’t been around there with Team Penske yet. It’s good to get that type of knowledge early on.”