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.

Leah Pritchett has quickest run in NHRA history at 3.640 seconds

Photo courtesy Don Schumacher Racing
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BRAINERD, Minn. (AP) Leah Pritchett had the quickest run in NHRA history with 3.640-second pass at 330.63 mph Friday night at Brainerd International Speedway in Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals qualifying.

She broke her own Top Fuel record of 3.658 set in Arizona in February.

“We’ve looked forward to this night session for a long time,” Pritchett said. “Knowing that Brainerd, this track, this surface, the conditions and what NHRA is able to do to it, lays down the ground work for us to pull out the most power possible. That’s what this team did. They have been working tirelessly at finding small amounts of power here, there and everywhere and to be able to put it on the track tonight was incredible.”

Robert Hight broke the Funny Car time record with a 3.793 at 338.00 in a Chevrolet Camaro SS, the first run in the 3.7s in Funny Car history. He set the speed record of 339.87 last month at Sonoma Raceway.

“I could tell it was running fast and I saw the 3.79 on the scoreboard,” Hight said. “It’s just something you dream about. There are so many things that have to happen and work together for it all to come together. It’s not that easy. This is a big milestone. To be part of a milestone as a driver, this was big for me.”

Tanner Gray topped the Pro Stock field, and Hector Arana Jr. was the fastest in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Gray had a 6.607 at 208.617 in a Chevrolet Camaro, and Arana had a 6.879 at 194.24 on a Buell.

Back racing after F1 test, Norris dominates Zandvoort F3 opener

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McLaren younster Lando Norris made an emphatic return to racing action after the summer break by dominating the opening race of the FIA European Formula 3 weekend at Zandvoort, taking his sixth win of the season.

Norris, 17, moved up to F3 for 2017 after winning two Formula Renault titles last year, as well as linking up with McLaren’s junior program.

The Briton impressed during his maiden Formula 1 test in Hungary at the end of last month, and carried the momentum through to Zandvoort by taking pole position for Carlin for the first race of the weekend.

Norris retained his lead at the start and only came under pressure following a safety car period, with Swedish youngster Joel Eriksson running close for the lead.

Norris was able to create a gap and pull away, completing a wire-to-wire win with almost nine seconds in hand over the pack for his sixth win of the season.

The result sees Norris move to within eight points of championship leader Maximillian Günther, the German finishing third on Saturday at Zandvoort.

Carpenter, Jones crash as Hunter-Reay leads Pocono practice

Photo: IndyCar
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LONG POND, Pa. – The Saturday morning practice for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway saw Honda jump to the fore, though a pair of incidents forced stoppages near the end.

Ryan Hunter-Reay topped the time charts with a quick lap of 219.268 mph, turned in the second half of the session. Hunter-Reay led Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, the best of the Chevrolet runners, the Frenchman turning a best lap of 219.211 mph.

Tony Kanaan was third for Chip Ganassi Racing, with Hunter-Reay’s teammate Marco Andretti in fourth after leading most of the session. Kanaan’s teammate Scott Dixon completed the top five, while sixth-place Takuma Sato and seventh-place Alexander Rossi made it four Andretti Autosport cars in the top ten.

The morning practice saw three stoppages. The first was only for a quick track inspection, but the next two were for crashes.

The first was for Ed Carpenter. Carpenter’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet broke loose exiting turn three 3 and smacked the outside wall with the left side. Carpenter climbed out unhurt, but the car sustained heavy damage. However, the team immediately began repairing the car ahead of qualifying this afternoon.

The other incident was for Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones. Jones’ No. 19 Honda spun in the middle of turn 2, but only sustained minor damage to the front nose, which brushed the outside wall during the spin.

Both Carpenter and Jones were checked, cleared, and released from the infield care center. Times are below. Qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 1:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

 

NHRA: Hight uncorks first 3.70 Funny Car run in history in Brainerd

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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Last night, Robert Hight and the John Force Racing team took an even bigger step in their recent run of form with a new record elapsed time in NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series history for the Funny Car class.

With a 3.793-second pass at Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota, Hight became the first Funny Car driver in history to run a pass under 3.80 seconds in the class’ history.

The full team release is below.

Auto Club of Southern California driver Robert Hight is getting pretty good at making history.

Two races ago, the Chevrolet Camaro SS driver set the national speed record of 339.87 mph at Sonoma, Calif.

On Friday at Brainerd International Raceway, Hight again went to new heights. The John Force Racing driver became the first in Funny Car to run under the 3.8-second mark, making a pass of 3.793 seconds at 338.00 mph to earn the provisional No. 1 spot for the NHRA Nationals on Friday night.

“It’s something you dream about,” Hight said. “There are so many things that have to happen, and so many people that have to work together for it to happen. It’s just not that easy. We’ve been on runs before that you think that, if it’d finished, it would have run in the .70s.

“To be the first – that’s history. This is a big milestone. It’s going to be a long time before we get into the 3.60s. To be a part of a milestone – I’ve been on John’s teams when he’s cracked barriers, but never done it as a driver – so this is big for me and the whole team. We’re ecstatic.”

Hight and his Auto Club team, led by crew chief Jimmy Prock and co-crew chief Chris Cunningham, have been on fire recently. Hight won in Denver and Seattle, earned No. 1 qualifiers in three of the last four races, qualified in the top three in each of the last nine races and now has set the national record for elapsed time and speed.

Hight sat in the No. 2 spot after the first session Friday with a run of 3.844 seconds at 335.07 mph but figured the “Prock Rocket” could go even quicker – and it certainly did.

“I could tell it was running fast,” Hight said. “The clutch disc was boiling, and that’s the way Jimmy runs it. That’s how he wants to wear the clutch. It was hard to see, but I did see the 3.79 on the scoreboard, because we shut off at 1,000 feet, I had the chutes out, and I glanced up there but I didn’t know the speed.”

Hight led a solid 1-3-4 effort for JFR, as PEAK Coolant & Motor Oil driver John Force was No. 3 with a run of 3.852 seconds at 334.15 mph and Advance Auto Parts driver Courtney Force was No. 4 with a pass of 3.863 seconds at 335.98 mph.

Brittany Force was No. 2 in Top Fuel, making a brilliant run of 3.685 seconds at a track-record speed of 333.16 mph. That speed was matched the third-best in NHRA history.

JFR now owns six of the nine fastest speeds in Funny Car history, as well as three of the six quickest elapsed times in Funny Car history.

Additionally, JFR Funny Cars own 12 of the 21 track records for elapsed time.