Sebastian Vettel may be greatest athlete America doesn’t know

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Sebastian Vettel appears ready to equal his racing hero and German countryman Michael Schumacher and also Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers in Formula One history to win four consecutive World Championships. That alone places him in the Mount Rushmore of legends in the sport; since entering in 2007 as a teenager, Vettel has stormed through the F1 record books with nearly every single Grand Prix.

Schumacher’s all-time marks of 91 wins and 7 World Championships are eventually going to be in range for Vettel, who thus far has 35 and 3 at age 26. He’s already the youngest to win three titles. Schumacher had runs of seven and five straight wins in 2004, the year of his final title. Fangio never won more than three races in a row and won just 24 races in his career, but raced during an era when only nine to 11 Grands Prix were on the calendar.

Yet while his status among the all-time greats of F1 is being solidified, his awareness to an American fan base is not at the same level as his on-track achievements.

Compared to some of America’s most dominant and recognizable stick-and-ball athletes – such as LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady/Peyton Manning – Vettel matches up from a dominance and success level.

LeBron’s at least a third of the way to his “not three, not four, not five, not six” proclamation with back-to-back rings. Brady’s run of success netted three Super Bowls in a four-year run earlier this century. Woods’ streak included holding all four major titles at the same time from 2000 to 2001, and his total of 14 majors is still unrivaled among other golfers even though he’s been stuck on 14 since that U.S. Open win over Rocco Mediate in 2008.

And yet Vettel’s got a record streak that would trump them all, with four successive season-long championships assuming he caps it off this weekend in India. One site rates his marketability behind that of NBA star Blake Griffin and tennis player Sloane Stephens, not to mention fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.

So why is he not as well-known in these parts? Several factors, actually.

The obvious, of course, was the lack of a United States Grand Prix until the event’s return at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas last year. Still, you can catch him for this year’s race on Nov. 17 on NBC, or in person at the track.

Looking historically, Vettel actually made his debut at the last USGP in Indianapolis in 2007 – as a then-long-haired, blonde, 19-year-old as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at the BMW Sauber team. He scored a championship point with eighth place, the youngest driver to do so, and began his march on the record books.

Those who paid attention that weekend – and are F1 devotees – will know they witnessed the beginning of the legend. The more casual observers, though, likely would not have known of Vettel until the series’ return a year ago.

Second is his sponsor, Red Bull. For all its marketing brilliance over the years, Red Bull has not opted to make Vettel the focal point of its ads in the U.S. since he joined the team in 2009. There’s been more ads from new Red Bull partner Infiniti this year – one with generic Red Bull Formula 3 cars racing through streets I can think of off the top of my head – and Vettel’s not included directly.

Red Bull got more mileage from a marketing and buzz standpoint out of the “Red Bull Stratos” event last October, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner free fell from more than 125,000 feet in space. It truly felt like “an event;” a Vettel Grand Prix win seems like “just another Sunday.”

You could argue Mobil 1 has made McLaren driver Jenson Button and, previously, Hamilton bigger names in the U.S. Hamilton and fellow Mobil 1 driver Tony Stewart memorably exchanged rides for a day in a made-for-TV 2011 event, and the two were in commercials together as well. This year, Button’s starred opposite “Smoke,” as the term “Soda cookies” has officially entered the vernacular.

All three – Vettel and the pair of English World Champions, Button and Hamilton – are much bigger on the other side of the pond compared to here. The Barclays Premier League has gained recent traction in the U.S., but it and F1 are the two major sports in England by contrast to here, where the NFL rules all.

Perhaps comparable examples for Vettel in the U.S. are Spanish soccer players Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, who have won multiple titles with their club team, Barcelona, and international trophies with Spain. But a U.S. sports fan may be hard-pressed to pick either out of a crowd. The same applies to Vettel.

Third, and the issue all F1 stars worldwide all seem to have here, is that the races often come on in the overnight or early morning hours. Only the most devoted, fervent fans have the desire and passion to want to wake up that early, or stay up that late, to watch Grands Prix.

And with Vettel’s recent run of success – five straight victories heading into this weekend – it has the potential to turn fans off with the notion that a race is as good as decided before it even begins. Say what you will about what it takes to achieve that, but unless you’re a fan of dominance and watching the best at their peak, it can get old.

We know Vettel’s an excellent shoe and from those who cover him every Grand Prix weekend, he has a sunny disposition, quick wit, sharp, insightful answers to journalist questions and an enthusiasm for winning that is evident every time that finger waves “number one.”

It just hasn’t waved “number one” here in terms of awareness of his level of dominance.

NHRA at Norwalk: Torrence wins 4th race of 2017; Beckman, Butner, Tonglet also win

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Steve Torrence earned a career-best fourth Top Fuel win in a season Sunday, capturing the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) captured their third wins in 2017, while Jack Beckman (Funny Car) earned his second win of the season as the NHRA wrapped up the first half of its 24-race season.

TOP FUEL: Torrence (3.743 seconds at 331.45 mph) defeated Doug Kalitta (3.736 at 331.36) in the final round. Torrence has now reached six final rounds this season over the last eight events, with a 4-2 record.

“I knew I left good on the tree but I could tell it would just be a coin toss who got it and fortunately I was able to come out ahead,” Torrence said in an NHRA media release. “It’s been a great season so far and we are hoping to keep this momentum going.”

The win also keeps Torrence No. 1 in the Top Fuel point standings.

FUNNY CAR: “Fast Jack” Beckman (4.073 seconds at 311.85 mph) earned his 26th career win over Robert Hight (6.673 seconds at 98.53 mph). Beckman has now won two of the last three races.

“We were consistently a bit off this weekend, but we are definitely happy to earn the victory this weekend,” Beckman said. “Now that we are getting down the track consistently, it keeps our opponents honest and that is definitely a formula we will continue to use for the rest of the season.”

PRO STOCK: It was a great jump at the starting line that led Butner (6.601 seconds at 210.50 mph) to defeat Greg Anderson (6.581 seconds at 210.87 mph).

“Today was a great day, we made four pretty consistent runs and my car was good when it needed to be,” said Butner, who added to his lead in the Pro Stock standings. “It’s one thing to have a good car, but we also had a lot of things go our way to get those win lights today.”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Tonglet (6.824 seconds at 195.76 mph) earned his 13th career PSM win, defeating Matt Smith (6.882 seconds at 195.31 mph).

“I didn’t see any win lights throughout qualifying, but seeing them on Sunday is what matters and we are happy with the results,” Tonglet said. “This is huge for us and our position in the points standings, so getting as many wins as possible is definitely our goal.”

Tonglet, who took over the points lead with the win, leads all PSM riders, having reached the final round in three of the first five races this season, and won all three of those.

The NHRA has an off-weekend coming up before returning to action July 6-9 at the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence; 2.  Doug Kalitta; 3.  Leah Pritchett; 4.  Brittany Force; 5.  Terry McMillen; 6.  Clay Millican; 7.  Tony Schumacher; 8.  Antron Brown; 9.  Shawn Langdon; 10.  Dom Lagana; 11.  Pat Dakin; 12.  Mike Salinas; 13.  Ike Maier; 14.  Troy Buff; 15.  Troy Coughlin Jr.; 16.  Scott Palmer.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Jack Beckman; 2.  Robert Hight; 3.  Bob Tasca III; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 5.  Ron Capps; 6.  John Force; 7.  Matt Hagan; 8.  Alexis DeJoria; 9.  J.R. Todd; 10.  Jim Campbell; 11.  Cruz Pedregon; 12.  Del Worsham; 13.  Jonnie Lindberg; 14.  Jeff Diehl; 15.  Dale Creasy Jr.; 16.  Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner; 2.  Greg Anderson; 3.  Jason Line; 4.  John Gaydosh Jr; 5.  Tanner Gray; 6.  Vincent Nobile; 7.  Jeg Coughlin; 8.  Allen Johnson; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Chris McGaha; 11.  Alex Laughlin; 12.  Val Smeland; 13.  Mark Hogan; 14.  Drew Skillman; 15.  Kenny Delco; 16.  Alan Prusiensky.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet; 2.  Matt Smith; 3.  Hector Arana Jr; 4.  Scotty Pollacheck; 5.  Joey Gladstone; 6.  Mike Berry; 7.  Andrew Hines; 8.  Steve Johnson; 9.  Chip Ellis; 10.  Eddie Krawiec; 11.  Karen Stoffer; 12.  Cory Reed; 13.  Joe DeSantis; 14.  Angelle Sampey; 15.  Melissa Surber; 16.  Angie Smith.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.743 seconds, 331.45 mph  def. Doug Kalitta, 3.736 seconds, 331.36 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.073, 311.85  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.601, 210.50  def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.824, 195.76  def. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS: 

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Clay Millican, 3.775, 311.63 def. Scott Palmer, Broke; Leah Pritchett, 3.760, 324.12 def. Ike Maier, 8.295, 105.60; Steve Torrence, 3.786, 326.32 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 8.501, 87.48; Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.98 def. Pat Dakin, 3.832, 293.60; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 329.99 def. Troy Buff, 8.421, 82.77; Antron Brown, 3.768, 323.35 def. Dom Lagana, 3.828, 322.34; Terry McMillen, 3.806, 323.04 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 324.90; Tony Schumacher, 3.789, 326.56 def. Mike Salinas, 7.129, 96.03;

QUARTERFINALS — Torrence, 3.792, 326.79 def. Millican, 3.872, 312.86; Force, 3.808, 325.53 def. McMillen, 3.859, 291.32; Pritchett, 3.848, 322.04 def. Brown, 5.187, 142.16; Kalitta, 3.782, 325.85 def. Schumacher, 4.099, 232.03;

SEMIFINALS — Torrence, 3.751, 326.08 def. Force, 8.630, 75.66; Kalitta, 3.768, 328.62 def. Pritchett, 3.800, 314.46;

FINAL — Torrence, 3.743, 331.45 def. Kalitta, 3.736, 331.36.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.993, 310.27 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 8.596, 84.51; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.913, 329.75 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.101, 307.65; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.349, 216.62 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 14.165, 61.22; John Force, Camaro, 3.930, 326.32 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Charger, Broke; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.942, 322.34 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.032, 318.69; Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.944, 326.56 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, Foul – Centerline; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.972, 324.75 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 7.528, 98.54; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.060, 319.82 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.180, 266.11;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.960, 324.44 def. Capps, 3.965, 324.83; Hight, 3.978, 321.73 def. DeJoria, 4.741, 180.16; Tasca III, 4.006, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.047, 301.00; Beckman, 4.078, 310.84 def. Hagan, 4.152, 275.06;

SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 4.074, 319.45 def. Johnson Jr., 6.049, 118.22; Hight, 3.925, 328.62 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Beckman, 4.073, 311.85 def. Hight, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.627, 209.43 def. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.595, 210.37 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.567, 210.64 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.676, 209.26; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.562, 210.50 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 14.694, 58.11; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.558, 210.64 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 7.790, 130.97; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.579, 210.70 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.759, 198.76; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.570, 211.16 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, 6.814, 203.52; John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.663, 208.01 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 7.212, 149.95;

QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.615, 210.73 def. Nobile, 6.687, 209.95; Anderson, 6.597, 210.90 def. Johnson, Foul – Red Light; Gaydosh Jr, 6.695, 207.18 def. Coughlin, 12.760, 68.65; Line, 6.585, 211.33 def. Gray, 6.599, 210.77;

SEMIFINALS — Butner, 6.606, 210.34 def. Gaydosh Jr, 6.701, 207.50; Anderson, 6.599, 210.80 def. Line, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.601, 210.50 def. Anderson, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Mike Berry, Buell, 6.950, 192.22 def. Cory Reed, 6.991, 189.31; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.43 def. Angelle Sampey, Foul – Red Light; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.853, 195.25 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, 22.220, 24.02; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.907, 193.74 def. Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.890, 193.93; Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.880, 194.80 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.915, 195.96; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.910, 196.13 def. Angie Smith, Buell, Broke; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.867, 194.69 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.16; Matt Smith, 6.849, 196.27 def. Joe DeSantis, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light;

QUARTERFINALS — Pollacheck, 6.905, 194.46 def. Gladstone, 6.904, 193.49; Arana Jr, 6.846, 197.36 def. Hines, 6.925, 193.02; Tonglet, 6.823, 196.22 def. Johnson, 6.962, 182.72; M. Smith, 6.876, 196.50 def. Berry, 6.916, 192.77;

SEMIFINALS — M. Smith, 6.872, 195.48 def. Pollacheck, 6.969, 186.30; Tonglet, 6.831, 195.08 def. Arana Jr, 6.863, 195.22;

FINAL — Tonglet, 6.824, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS AFTER NORWALK:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence, 1,071; 2.  Leah Pritchett, 1,021; 3.  Antron Brown, 990; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 856; 5.  Doug Kalitta, 781; 6.  Brittany Force, 734; 7.  Clay Millican, 695; 8.  Terry McMillen, 477; 9.  (tie) Troy Coughlin Jr., 464; Scott Palmer, 464.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,095; 2.  Matt Hagan, 946; 3.  Jack Beckman, 855; 4.  Robert Hight, 809; 5.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 739; 6.  Courtney Force, 714; 7.  John Force, 683; 8.  Tim Wilkerson, 525; 9.  J.R. Todd, 508; 10.  Cruz Pedregon, 431.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner, 1,067; 2.  Greg Anderson, 941; 3.  Tanner Gray, 887; 4.  Jeg Coughlin, 820; 5.  Jason Line, 781; 6.  Erica Enders, 690; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 670; 8.  Drew Skillman, 575; 9.  Chris McGaha, 454; 10.  Allen Johnson, 448.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet, 480; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 389; 3.  Scotty Pollacheck, 325; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 322; 5.  Andrew Hines, 317; 6.  Hector Arana Jr, 314; 7.  Joey Gladstone, 278; 8.  Matt Smith, 256; 9.  Steve Johnson, 219; 10.  Karen Stoffer, 217.

 

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

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F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.