Brian France, Mike Helton

NASCAR holds closed-door meeting; officiating revisions made for tomorrow’s Chase opener

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NASCAR, along with drivers, team owners, and assorted team personnel, held a mandatory closed-door meeting inside the garages this afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. According to multiple Twitter reports from Chicagoland, security guards were posted outside to prevent fan and media access.

But afterwards, three of NASCAR’s top executives – CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton (both pictured, yesterday), and vice president of competition Robin Pemberton – did visit with the press to discuss the meeting. Additionally, NASCAR announced a series of officiating revisions, which will take effect tomorrow for the Chase-opening GEICO 400.

Those provisions will primarily impact the spotters. The spotters’ stand will now be spotters-only, with one for each team. Each spotter will be equipped with two analog radios, scanners and FanViews, but will not be permitted to use digital radios. Also, a video camera will now be installed to monitor activity in that area.

Going back to the meeting, France said it was meant to define what NASCAR expected of its teams going forward after last Saturday’s controversial finish to the Chase-deciding race at Richmond International Raceway.

“Those expectations are that a driver and team give 100 percent effort – their best effort – to complete a race and race as hard as they possibly can,” France said. “We issued a variety of things, some clarifications and some adjustments, to our ability to officiate that.

“We addressed team rules, and as I said, a variety of other things all designed to do what our fans expect and that means that their driver and their team give 100 percent to finish as high up in a given race as possible.”

Helton then said that a new rule will go out to the teams in a technical bulletin later this afternoon:

“It reads: ‘NASCAR requires its competitors to race at 100 percent of their ability with the goal of achieving the best possible finishing position in an event. Any competitor who takes action with the intent to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event, or encourages, persuades, or induces others to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event, will be subject to a penalty from NASCAR.

“Such penalties may include, but are not limited to, disqualification and/or loss of finishing points, and/or fines, and/or loss of points, and/or suspension, and/or probation to any and all members of the teams, including any beneficiaries of the prohibitive actions. ‘Artificially altered’ shall be defined as actions by any competitor that shows or suggests that the competitor did not race at 100 percent of their ability for the purpose of changing finishing positions in the event at NASCAR’s sole discretion.'”

Helton would go on to reveal what he stressed as a “working list” of acceptable and unacceptable examples in regards to the new rule.

On the acceptable list were matters such as contact while racing for position, performance issues, and yielding to a faster car, while the unacceptable list had examples like offering positions in exchange for favor or material benefit, directing a driver to give up a position to benefit another driver, intentionally causing a caution, and intentionally causing a caution for the benefit of another driver.

According to Helton, the meeting was an “open dialogue” in which France addressed a “very attentive” assembled group on the character of the sport and how important it was to protect it.

The conclusion of the Richmond race has caused many media outlets to bring NASCAR’s credibility into question. When asked about the topic, France indicated that it was important that NASCAR get back to what it does best.

“It’s like anything else – circumstances happen that are unhelpful in the credibility category,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. And you go back to what you’re about and what we’re about is the best racing in the world with the best drivers giving 100 percent of their ability.

“And to the extent that we got off of that for any reason, then it’s our job to have the rules of the road – the rules of the race – such that it achieves that every day. If it’s not this, it might be something else. You just deal with it, we’ve dealt with it as best we can, and we move on.”

In the last week, NASCAR has delivered major penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for their role in manipulating the finish last Saturday night and has twice altered its post-season field.

Martin Truex Jr. was taken out of the Chase thanks to those penalties, with Ryan Newman moving into his spot as the second Wild Card. But yesterday, citing in France’s words, “an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances” at Richmond, NASCAR announced that Jeff Gordon would go into the post-season as the Chase’s 13th driver.

Friday’s decision has been met with mixed reactions from fans and media, with Truex himself declaring that the situation was unfair but that he was powerless to do anything about it.

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.