IndyCar Fontana Auto Racing

IndyCar 2014 silly season update, round 1

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The championship is in the books for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, and while my colleague Chris Estrada and I will have a bevy of postseason wrap-up content to come, it’s never too early to look ahead to 2014. And thus far, there’s been no shortage of announcements and already a healthy portion of the field confirmed.

Here’s what we know thus far:

CONFIRMED (14)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (3 cars, Chevrolet): Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball. The champ is staying until 2015 as announced back in March, “TK” made his switch from KV and the team’s move from Honda to Chevy official at Houston and Kimball will seek to grow even further in his fourth season. We’ll touch on the fourth car in a moment.
  • Team Penske (3 cars, Chevrolet): Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power. Castroneves and Power stay with Penske for their 15th and sixth seasons, respectively, while “JPM’s” shock move from NASCAR was revealed in September.
  • Andretti Autosport (3 cars, Honda): Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay. This trio continues on but Andretti may have a new livery in his Dr Pepper Snapple car, Hinchcliffe will for sure with new sponsor United Fiber & Data, and Hunter-Reay switches back from No. 1 to 28, the latter number he won the 2012 title. Honda switch also was announced at Fontana.
  • Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports (Honda): Simon Pagenaud. Team announced Honda at Sonoma and Pagenaud will drive his third consecutive season with Schmidt, but with a new primary sponsor yet to be determined.
  • KVSH Racing: Sebastien Bourdais. The two-year deal announced just prior to Fontana did not make mention of the team’s engine manufacturer or Bourdais’ teammate, but a switch to KV is an upgrade from Dragon for the four-time Champ Car champion.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Graham Rahal. The first year of Graham’s homecoming wasn’t stellar so he’ll be looking for a turnaround in year two. A second full-time car is likely, and a third possible for at least selected races.
  • Ed Carpenter Racing: Ed Carpenter. About as shocking as Rahal staying at Rahal and Andretti at Andretti, really…
  • Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Josef Newgarden. The American enters the third and final year of his rookie contract in 2014, and seeks his first career win after a much-improved sophomore season.

ALL BUT OFFICIAL (2)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (fourth car, Chevrolet): Dario Franchitti. It’s all but a formality even though Franchitti was careful to say earlier this year he wanted to return but didn’t have anything official done. As he recovers from his Houston injuries, the team seems set to keep Fontana replacement Alex Tagliani on standby for offseason testing. But this is Dario’s car for 2014 unless he decides otherwise.
  • Dale Coyne Racing: Justin Wilson. Yes, it was announced back in March that the lanky, talented and personable Englishman had signed a contract extension with Coyne. That aside, nothing is ever official with Coyne until Practice 1 at St. Petersburg is underway. The biggest thing here is that like Franchitti, Wilson recovers from his late-season injuries and gets back to being a badass behind the wheel.

VERY LIKELY (2)

  • Andretti Autosport (fourth car, Honda): Carlos Munoz. Assuming the funding comes together, this car seems earmarked for the Colombian who’s paid his dues in Indy Lights, starred in his IndyCar cameos, and is ready to make the jump to IndyCar.
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises: The eponymous team owner said in a conference call prior to Houston that the returns of Takuma Sato and Honda were close, but not finalized. Sato’s ragged second half of the season didn’t help his cause and all weekend at Fontana, my sources were alternating between “yes, he’ll be back” and “no, he won’t” on a consistent basis. I’d lean toward the former at the moment for consistency’s sake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they go a different direction, either.

LIKELY (2)

  • Barracuda Racing: Luca Filippi. From his three weekend outings, Houston in particular, Bryan Herta’s team was floored by Filippi’s pace, his candor, and his team interaction. JR Hildebrand gave it his best shot at Fontana, but given the higher volume of road and street course races, Filippi is a better full season candidate here.
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Tristan Vautier. Per team co-owner Rick Peterson at Sonoma, the intention and goal is for Vautier and SPM to carry through to a second season, where he can grow further and eliminate some of his mistakes. He’s a good kid with a lot of potential but a couple things work against him: he won’t have the Mazda scholarship support next year – that now goes to this year’s champion Sage Karam – and he had to make due with a consortium of backers on the No. 55 Honda this year. It might be a patchwork project again.

2013 FULL-SEASON DRIVERS LOOKING TO LAND

  • Simona de Silvestro. De Silvestro will be somewhere in 2014 after her best season, and while a KV return is possible, her management team told me at Fontana they are exploring all their options.
  • James Jakes. In roughly the same boat. A RACER.com story earlier this year said Jakes would at least like to consider getting paid as opposed to paying his way via his family’s Acorn Stairlifts business. Still, was one of the year’s most improved drivers and a second year at RLL would give both driver and team a chance to grow further.
  • E.J. Viso. Perhaps hamstrung by the investigation into Venezuelan funding for race drivers, Viso’s a big question mark at the moment as to where he fits into the equation.
  • Sebastian Saavedra. Dragon hasn’t made overtones yet about an IndyCar return, and Bourdais has already bolted, but it has already announced a Formula E program. So, make of that what you will for Saavedra. 
  • Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, Mike Conway, JR Hildebrand, Ryan Briscoe, etc. Wait and see for all of these drivers, who ran part-time 2013 seasons and traditionally haven’t brought budgets to seats. In other words, just another offseason.

2013 TEAMS LOOKING FOR DRIVERS

  • Second cars at RLL Racing and KVSH Racing will be in play, with RLL’s potentially not requiring a paying driver, if the National Guard-to-RLL story Robin Miller wrote a couple weeks ago for RACER.com comes to pass.
  • The second Dale Coyne Racing car is likely to go to the highest bidder, the latest bidder, or a combination of drivers who come up with the budget to put the year together as was the case this year. Not worth even discussing until St. Petersburg, most likely.
  • Panther Racing has nothing for 2014 confirmed, with seasonal layoffs coming and the potential of losing its title sponsor per that aforementioned Miller report.

If you project maybe one or two full season car losses from 2013, but add the third Penske and fourth Ganassi full-time entries, respectively, the 2014 grid will look fairly similar in terms of overall car count (24-25). Second cars from single car teams are always “possible” but rarely bear fruit. It’s only the end of October, so things will change soon enough.

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.