Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves

Respect drives Penske-Ganassi rivalry – but is that enough?

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Open-wheel racing’s preeminent rivalry is not fueled by bitterness, but by mutual respect.

Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing have continually challenged each other for glory in the form of race wins and series championships, and in doing so, they have set themselves apart as two of the most successful squads in the history of the sport.

But instead of having their constant struggle for supremacy be tinged by acrimony, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi’s groups have, by and large, kept things gentlemanly.

Oh, rest assured that they definitely want to beat each other. And there have been the inevitable occasional flare-ups – in fact, the most recent ones came just this past summer with TCGR’s Scott Dixon and Penske’s Will Power involved in twin incidents at Sonoma and then again at Baltimore.

But for the two teams, it all comes back to admiration for their collective ability to contend week in and week out.

“That’s what drives us, to be honest about it, and I think that’s what drives us to be with them race in and race out, wheel to wheel, every weekend, because that’s the measure,” TCGR managing director Mike Hull said during an IndyCar teleconference on Tuesday in advance of Saturday night’s season-ending MAV TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

“There are other teams that we race against that do the same job, but what you have to do is you have to create a mindset that you’re going to do the job season in and season out, and that’s what we saw in Penske Racing when we tried to form the organization that we formed.”

In another sign of cordiality, Penske team president Tim Cindric then proceeded to thank Hull for those comments before noting how both teams “have the resources and the ability to attract the best people” and set themselves apart from the rest in the paddock.

“I think that’s the mindset that both groups have, is that second isn’t good enough, and that’s what you need,” Cindric said. “But the difference really is the people that I think both groups have and the continuity that we have with not only our sponsors but our people.

“The people certainly make the difference because they’re the ones that really execute on race day or they don’t.  But I think the reason why we’re all involved in it really is just the passion we have for the sport.”

Together, the two teams have become the major forces in the IZOD IndyCar Series, winning a combined 60 of 84 races over the last five years. Additionally, they have earned a combined six series championships since 2003; Ganassi has five, Penske has one.

And after Saturday, the Penske/Ganassi bloc will have added a seventh crown over the last decade. Dixon and Penske’s three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves are the last men standing, with Dixon holding a 25-point lead going into the final race of 2013; a finish of fifth or better at ACS will seal the deal for him.

So, Penske vs. Ganassi is, once again, the title fight. One could think that such a repeated occurrence could lead to a sense of ennui between the teams.

Not so.

“Mike and I have both been on teams that don’t run up at the front, and it just seems so far away,” Cindric explained. “You know, it just seems so difficult to get there, and when you are there, sometimes you get somewhat immune to it and you catch yourself maybe thinking, ‘Hey, is this really worth it or is this really what I signed up to do?'”

“And that thought goes away pretty quickly, because you realize what it’s like to be on the other side of it, and I guess I call it the real world and our world. Once you’ve lived in our world, you really don’t want to go back to the real world.”

No real hatred. No lingering ill will. And, from their perspective, no boredom from locking horns all the time. Emphasizing on-track competition, the Penske-Ganassi rivalry should be considered as one that stacks up nicely against its analogues from the stick-and-ball side of things.

And yet, to many fans within the IndyCar base, the two teams are despised. Perhaps we can blame that on their aforementioned collective dominance. Nobody likes it when somebody wins too often, after all. Ask Jeff Gordon or Sebastian Vettel.

These followers must have taken great delight in seeing how this season began with six different winners in the first seven races. None of those winners came from the Penske or Ganassi teams, and we’ll admit, that was quite intriguing to see.

However, the pendulum has swung back. In the last 11 races, eight have been won by Penske or Ganassi drivers. During this stretch, Dixon’s chalked up four wins (three of them in succession at Pocono and the Toronto doubleheader), Power’s grabbed two (Sonoma and Houston Race 2), and Castroneves and Ganassi’s third pilot, Charlie Kimball, have each scored one.

But when you push aside the supposed “winning too much” aspect for a moment, something else emerges. In an age where controversy often propels the news cycle and gets people talking and Tweeting, the overall sensibility of the Penske-Ganassi rivalry can be taken by some as being out of step with the times and not buzz-worthy.

And if IndyCar needs anything right now, it’s buzz. The title hype going into this weekend is certainly there for all of us who follow the sport but is there a huge, national anticipation for Saturday’s 500-miler in Southern California? I think we know the answer all too clearly.

Neither Penske nor Ganassi will ever apologize for how they go about their business, and they shouldn’t. For many years, they’ve been setting the standard and that’s going to remain their focus.

Still, the fact remains that IndyCar sorely lacks the lightning rod personalities that will get more people to pay attention to the series, whether they love or loathe them. They’ll get one next year when Juan Pablo Montoya returns to open-wheel as part of Team Penske, but one man won’t do the job alone.

In a perfect world, IndyCar’s tremendous racing would speak louder than anything else, and Penske and Ganassi’s relatively clean rivalry would be endlessly praised. But this is not a perfect world…Is it?

IndyCar CEO: No safety changes for 2016 car, despite Wilson death

indycar ceo mark miles
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An investigation into the August accident that killed driver Justin Wilson has resulted in no recommendations for immediate safety changes in race cars, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said.

But changes could be in line by 2017, including some sort of canopy or enclosed cockpit or surrounding apron to protect drivers, Miles told USA Today.

The 37-year-old Wilson was struck in the head from a piece of debris that flew off Sage Karam’s wrecked car during a race at Pocono Raceway. Wilson died the following day in a Pennsylvania hospital.

“What the report provides is a lot of technical data about the energy involved and the forces and exactly what happened and all of that,” Miles told USA Today. “I don’t think there were any revelations. I think for everybody, with or without the report, all of us hope to be able to make progress in finding ways to make the cockpit safer and to reduce the risks.

“So for example, there may be some short-term measures like tethering some parts that weren’t this year, but could be. That’s a work in progress. But I don’t want to give the sense that was because of anything revealed in the accident investigation. What you think happened, happened there.”

One area that has received considerable discussion is the potential for enclosed cockpits or canopies in Indy cars. But the development of such a device will take time, prompting Miles to predict that if canopies or capsules are ultimately added as a safety precaution, it likely would not occur until at least the 2017 season.

“You’re not going to see a change to the car for next year in this regard just because I don’t think it’s possible,” Miles said. “… These are technical challenges and it’s hard to imagine that anything transformative will happen this year. At this point, I wouldn’t rule out 2017, but the research has to be done, the development has to be done to answer the questions as to what can be done by when.”

Addressing specifically the investigation of Wilson’s accident, Miles said, “It reinforces the risks, I think, of the open cockpit and further energizes efforts in motorsport to try to reduce those risks.”

But devising a cockpit or canopy – if either is adopted – will take considerable development and testing time. Miles said he’s had lengthy discussions with officials from groups such as NASA and the aerospace industry that provide cockpits for entities such as jet fighters.

He added that Formula 1 officials have also been studying enclosed cockpits for quite some time, particularly things such as ingress/egress from within the cockpit, as well as heat buildup inside.

“Obviously, the foundational point is whether there’s a solution which protects the driver and there may be no solution which provides complete protection if you get into a situation like in Las Vegas (where driver Dan Wheldon died as a result of head injuries when he stuck a catch fence support),” Miles said. “But it’s how much more safe can you make it while proving for not having unintended consequences.”

Miles said that in addition to canopies and enclosed cockpits, IndyCar is also looking at other variations and the potential risk vs. rewards of those as well.

“This is not necessarily about a completely closed cockpit,” Miles said. “It could be more of an apron. If something hits that … it’s possible (the object) could be propelled higher and further and an unintended consequence could be the risk of something going into the crowd.

“It doesn’t necessarily knock it down and put it on the track if something was coming at a car like that, especially something like a tire that has energy in it.

“What is clear to me is we’ve got an outside perspective as do our safety people, on the long list of things you have to address. … Hopefully something meaningful can happen.”

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IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Luca Filippi

Josef Newgarden, Luca Filippi
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, in 2015. Luca Filippi ended 21st in the No. 20 car, running the road and street course races for CFH Racing.

Luca Filippi, No. 20 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 28th Place, 4 starts
  • 2015: 21st Place (10 starts), Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 6th, 1 Podium, 1 Top-5, 4 Top-10, 2 Laps Led, 12.4 Avg. Start, 13.9 Avg. Finish

After part-time runs with Bryan Herta Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2013 and 2014, likable Italian Luca Filippi finally got his first full part-time season as the road and street course replacement at CFH Racing, replacing Mike Conway. Having won twice last year, Conway left some decently big shoes to fill and Filippi did a fair job throughout the year more often than not.

Filippi had a slightly better grid position average than did Conway, 12.4 to 13, and was slightly better overall in the races. In 10 races (including one with double points), Filippi scored 182 points and four top-10 finishes (including one top-five). A year ago, Conway scored 252 points from 12 starts, but only two top-10 finishes (both were wins). Broken down, Conway averaged 21 points per race (about a 10th place result) and Filippi 18.2 (about 12th).

Thing was last year, Conway didn’t have a measuring stick as ECR was a single-car team. In the combined two-car CFH Racing organization, Filippi had Josef Newgarden as a teammate, and that provided a more accurate measuring stick. In their 10 races together, Newgarden finished ahead 7-3, and also qualified ahead 7-3.

Filippi felt more comfortable as the year progressed – keep in mind this was the first time he’d seen most of the tracks – and at places like Toronto and Mid-Ohio where had had past track experience, he shone brightest. It was no coincidence his lone Firestone Fast Six appearance and first career podium came at Toronto, and at Mid-Ohio he was also very quick but caught out by strategy in the race.

During the year, Filippi also had two other key moments of note, one personal and one professional. He became a dad prior to Mid-Ohio, and was embracing his newborn shortly after the race not long after. Professionally speaking, he made his oval test debut at Iowa, which was important to note in case CFH wants to continue on with him next year, as seems possible. It was a good year that planted the seed for further success in the future, provided he continues in North America.