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MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 2

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re continuing our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our respective bests and worsts of this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. As you’ll see below, Chris and I agreed on several items, but occasionally for different reasons…

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A no-doubter. Four second-half wins including the incredible run of three in eight days at Pocono and Toronto, a revitalized charge at Houston after getting knocked down at Sonoma and Baltimore, and a controlled drive at Fontana all did the trick for Dixon’s third IndyCar title. Helio Castroneves collected points, but Dixon went out and took points away.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s place among IndyCar’s all-time best competitors has to be secure after he charged from seventh in the standings at mid-season to his third career IndyCar Series championship. His three-race win streak in July (Pocono, Toronto 1 and 2) put him back in the title picture, but he proved how strong his resolve is after suffering twin calamities at Sonoma and Baltimore, and capitalized on the misfortunes of title rival Helio Castroneves in the Houston doubleheader with a win and runner-up. From there, he did what he had to do at Fontana and now he’s back on top of the mountain – a well-deserved triumph for one of the sport’s most tenacious drivers.

MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER

TDZ: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sebastian Saavedra’s a close second for me, but the stats don’t lie: Rahal tied Saavedra with the worst starting average in the field (17.7), had only five top-10 finishes in 19 races, and finished 18th in the standings. Plus, James Jakes hassled him way more than I thought was possible. A midseason engineering change from Gerry Hughes to Neil Fife helped, but it wasn’t enough to make a sizeable difference. Perhaps the addition of Bill Pappas for 2014, announced Thursday, will. I certainly didn’t expect this, and I’m fairly certain these guys didn’t either.

CE: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Things just never really got on track for Rahal in his first full-time season with the family team. He and the No. 15 crew are capable of better as they showed in their flashes of promise this season, like their podium at Long Beach, drive to fifth in Iowa and jumping 17 positions in Houston Race 1 for a top-10 result. It’s moments like those that should make the RLL camp optimistic about what they can do when everything does come together. But 2013 was definitely not that time.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Either “Newgy” or “Chuck strong,” Charlie Kimball, would be a worthy recipient here, and Chris hits Charlie’s case below. I’ll state Josef’s. The kid overachieved on a single-car team in his sophomore season and eliminated the mistakes that all-too-frequently occurred in his rookie year. He could have won at Brazil had it not been for ill-timed defending by Takuma Sato, and his run to second at Baltimore was one of the drives of the year. There, he started fifth, bounced from front to back to front again, and handled the track’s notorious chicane like a boss. His qualifying could be better but that’s my only demerit; 23rd to 14th is an excellent jump in the standings and in 2014 he should be contending for his first win, and a top-10 points finish, a la Kimball this year.

CE: Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. The IndyCar Series had four first-time winners in 2013, but it can be argued that Kimball’s breakthrough at Mid-Ohio in August was the most heart-warming of them all. It was the climax of a very competitive 2013 for the American driver, who logged two podiums (the other coming at Pocono), three top-5s, and 10 top-10s en route to a respectable ninth-place finish in the championship. Even better: With Kimball’s star rising on the track, he and sponsor Novo Nordisk’s noble work toward diabetes awareness is sure to resonate further off of it.

BEST RACE

TDZ: Brazil. Several second-half races challenged it from a drama standpoint – Sonoma, Baltimore, both Houston rounds and the Fontana season finale – but Brazil was the best blend of on-track drama and an incredible finish in my estimation.

CE: Brazil. Of course, this race is currently off the schedule for next season (*facepalm*). Time will tell if it comes back in 2015, but let’s hope so. This year’s running was everything a motor race should be – passes for position galore, daring maneuvers, and a battle that went all the way to the final corner. Even the most hardened oval-racing fans had to love what they saw in the streets of Sao Paulo.

WORST RACE

TDZ: Houston Race 2. The battle between Will Power and Dixon for the win was good, and there was decent passing throughout the field. So why does this qualify? The last-lap wreck that sent Franchitti airborne was the icing on the cake on what was IndyCar’s most trying weekend of the season. Franchitti and fans got injured, the national passerby media popped up again questioning IndyCar’s safety, and most folks left with a sour taste in their mouths.

CE: Houston Race 2. If you saw our coverage during the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, you’ll know that the on-track proceedings left much to be desired: Constant schedule changes, temporary chicanes, bipolar weather conditions, the botched setting of the Race 2 grid, and then, Franchitti getting sent into the catch fence on the final lap and scattering debris into the grandstands. Thankfully, Franchitti survived the incident and the injured fans weren’t severely dinged up. But altogether, it was certainly not IndyCar’s finest hour.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Going to take a step down to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder for this. The announcement that Dan Anderson and Andersen Promotions will take over Indy Lights, thus putting it under the same umbrella as Pro Mazda and USF2000, is huge. There is more cohesion, more announcements, and more possibilities for growth under one tent than separate.

CE: I don’t really see this so much as a “story,” but more so as “the right thing to do.” Shortly after the events of Houston, IndyCar drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to a local hospital to visit some of the fans that were hit with the debris from the aforementioned crash. It was a poignant reminder of just how many good people there are within the series.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Take your pick of the 2014 schedule and the doubts that raises among some IndyCar fans, the IMS road course race, the lack of a commercial division head or the rash of sponsors that are on the way out at the end of this year. To me, IZOD’s departure is the biggest – and worst – off-track story this year. It was not unexpected as signs of its leaving have been forecast for almost two years. At the moment though, there is little to no buzz about a potential replacement. I had mooted a couple suggestions a month or so ago but neither appears serious as time has passed. IndyCar has a good product, but will remain invisible on a national scale so long as it does not have a key title sponsor to activate and promote the series. This remains Mark Miles and Hulman & Co.’s biggest challenge, and as Miles performs company reorganization this winter, they seek the big fish that can help get this product to the people.

CE: I have to go with the condensed schedule rolled out for 2014. While keeping tabs on the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month, I had the rather cringe-worthy realization that IndyCar would be almost two months into its off-season by this time next fall. Nobody wants to deal with the NFL, but the proposed international winter series for 2015 better come off or the series will sink further into irrelevance thanks to its extended hiatus.

PIRTEK Team Murray rolls out several tidbits as Brabham preps for debut

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Photo: PIRTEK Team Murray
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It’s been a busy last week or so for PIRTEK Team Murray and driver Matthew Brabham around the Indianapolis area.

And they haven’t even begun practicing or qualifying or even racing in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

* First, the team announced that the most decorated police officer in New York City Police history, Walter Wasilewski, has joined PIRTEK Team Murray’s CK Crew of Veterans and First Responders that will take part in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge for the Indianapolis 500 (photo below; photo credit: PIRTEK Team Murray).

056Wasilewski received over 200 medals and awards before retiring. He made over 3,000 arrests during his career with the NYPD, and also served at Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The CK Crew, will allow the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation to host 500 members of the military and first responders at Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month of May. Kyle was a highly-decorated NAVY Seal and sniper who was killed in 2013 in his native Texas.

Seven of those 500 members of the CK Crew will train and crew Brabham’s PIRTEK Team Murray car in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge, to be held on Miller Lite Carb Day on May 27.

“This concept is unique and it will allow a number of guys and girls to come together and form a team to hopefully get PIRTEK Team Murray to victory lane in the Pit Stop Challenge,” said Walter Wasilewski.

“Everyone knows what Chris Kyle did for America and Taya (Kyle’s widow) is carrying on his legacy with such dignity and class. I’ve had the chance to meet with Taya on several occasions in New York and she is an amazing American.

“My career in the Police Department was through some of the most dangerous times in New York’s history. Period.

“That training is going to come in handy when standing waiting for the PIRTEK Team Murray racecar to come at me. In the Police Department, you have to have faith in those around you to protect you – in this case, I have to have the faith in Matt to stop the car on his marks so we can then go about our job.”

* Second, Brabham recently had the opportunity to take part in the Indianapolis Colts’ NFL Draft announcement (see main photo).

Brabham, 22, joined four-time and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in announcing two of the Colts’ draft picks: Hassan Ridgeway from Texas and Florida’s Antonio Morrison.

The draft announcement was made on the start-finish line of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I knew nothing about American football when I first moved back to the US from Australia in 2012, but I have really grown to love it,” Brabham said. “I have been to several Colts games and the more I know the more I am really starting to get into it.

“We had a fantasy football league with several of the drivers last year and I won it, so I must be learning something.

“It is great that we can combine two things as significant as the Colts and NFL Draft and the Indianapolis Speedway and the 100th Indy 500.

“To get up close to the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl trophy (Vince Lombardi Trophy) was pretty cool. You don’t get to do that every day.”

* Third, Matthew Brabham’s grandfather, three-time Formula One champion Sir Jack Brabham, has been named to “The Top 100 Most Important People in Indy 500 History” by the Indianapolis Star.

“Sir Jack,” as he was called in the later years of his life, is ranked 56th on the list. The patriarch of the Brabham family passed away on May 19, 2014 at the age of 88.

Young Matthew is only the third third-generation racer to attempt to race in the 500, following his grandfather and father Geoff.

The other two families that have had three generations of racers compete at Indianapolis are the Vukovich family – Bill, Billy Jr. and Billy III – as well as the Andretti family: Mario, Michael and Marco.

“We have said it many times, but it is just an honor and a privilege to be part of this year’s Month of May and everything that goes with it,” Matthew Brabham said in a media release.

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Marty Snider’s son Myatt Snider set for ARCA debut

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Photo: Cunningham Motorsports
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Myatt Snider, the 21-year-old eldest son of NBCSN NASCAR and IndyCar reporter Marty Snider, will make his ARCA Series debut later this month.

His series debut will come at Toledo Speedway on May 22, driving the No. 22 Ford for Cunningham Motorsports. It will be the first of nine starts for him this year.

“This is the big opportunity that I have been dreaming about for several years,” the younger Snider said in a release. “I feel so blessed to drive for Paul Andrews and Cunningham Motorsports. I’m confident the move up to ARCA will be a smooth transition, especially since Jeff Caudill will be coming with me and continue being my crew chief.”

With Kevin Lee’s son Jackson also a rising star in the karting ranks, it’s cool to see the next generation of talent start to grow and develop in the stock car ranks. Marty Snider will work on NBCSN’s IndyCar broadcasts through Road America on June 26 on pit road, before the return of NASCAR on NBC on July 2 at Daytona.

A more extensive report can be found here via NASCAR TALK’s Nate Ryan.

Pagenaud disappointed by Boston drop; would love Watkins Glen option

LONG BEACH, CA - APRIL 17: Simon Pagenaud is the winner of the 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17, 2016 in Long Beach, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
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The Verizon IndyCar Series points leader, Simon Pagenaud, was one of several drivers the series deployed to Boston (James Hinchcliffe was another) to promote what would have been the inaugural Grand Prix of Boston on Labor Day weekend.

“The underground aspect is very unique,” Pagenaud said in a series release in January. “I mainly look forward to hearing the sound of the car as I drive under it. The layout is very fun and the track itself is in a fast-growing area with a great dynamic. I should be able to get good speed because the wide track, fast corners and smooth roads after all of the work (is completed) will most likely make this track one of the fastest tracks there is.

“The Verizon IndyCar Series is very excited for the potential that Boston brings as a whole,” he added. “It is exciting to be able to reach out to another population in a great area and hopefully see its economy change for the better as a result of the race. I would really like to thank the city of Boston for this opportunity.”

But with news emerging late Friday that the race wouldn’t be on the 2016 schedule after all, Pagenaud reflected a bit of disappointment that people didn’t understand what the event could have provided.

“Yeah, I’m very disappointed,” Pagenaud told reporters Wednesday during a teleconference. “That was going to be a great event, perfect position in the city.

“I managed to see the excitement of I guess half of the population in Boston, because I know some of the population was not excited about it. There were a lot of people that were pulling for the race. I saw the excitement.

“The racetrack itself looked like it was going to be a beautiful layout. We were going to go through a tunnel, which would have been really cool.”

Naturally, the next follow-up question is where would Pagenaud like to race provided INDYCAR could fill the slot on the calendar.

A permanent road course in the vain of Road America – where Pagenaud’s had success in sports cars and clinched his Champ Car Atlantic crown in 2006 – immediately came to mind.

“I hope we can replace the race. For sure, I’m thinking of Watkins Glen. I’ve never been there, but it looks like a beautiful track. It’s been repaved, as well, recently. That would be a good market and really cool track to go to.

“There’s plenty of tracks in America that could be exciting to go to. I’d like to go back to Fontana personally. I love that oval. But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For what it’s worth, Watkins Glen has been discussed openly as an option although whether INDYCAR could make it happen and whether the track will be able to accommodate it remains to be seen.

Watkins Glen International Michael Printup told the Boston Herald that while the track would “be a great site for them,” it remains a long ways off and would require a minor miracle to do some schedule jostling.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but we’re not even there yet. It’s a huge challenge,” Printup told the Herald, with neither INDYCAR officials nor Grand Prix of Boston officials available for further comment.

I had to joke with Pagenaud, who’s now driving a Menards-backed entry with John Menard’s support for the full month of May and for IndyCar’s return to Road America in late June, whether he could persuade Menard to help IndyCar return – again – to the Milwaukee Mile.

“There you go,” Pagenaud laughed, although such an option doesn’t seem realistic at this juncture.

Space dreams occur for Hildebrand, Daly at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Hildebrand Daly
(Photo courtesy Conor Daly official Twitter page)
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To some awe-struck fans, their dreams of driving an Indy car are an out-of-this-world experience.

For Conor Daly and JR Hildebrand, driving an race car in the Verizon IndyCar Series is an orbital experience what they do for a living.

Earlier this week in Houston, on Tuesday, Daly and Hildebrand enjoyed a REAL out of this world experience as they visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The day-long visit was an exceptional trip for the two drivers, who hung out with robots, did a virtual tour of the International Space Station, saw mockups of the Space Shuttle and more.

But the best part for the duo was the opportunity to have a live 10-minute conversation with astronauts Tim Kopra, Jeff Williams and Tim Peake.

“Man, I wanna go to space,” Daly said, via IndyCar.com. Of note, the driver of the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda also went to “Space Camp” prior to the series’ most recent round at Barber Motorsports Park.

Added Hildebrand, “Ultimately, you end the day feeling overwhelmed about how much amazing stuff you got to see.”

Later, as their trip came to an end, the drivers were more than just appreciative. They left the JSC in a kind of awe that they’ll likely feel for a long time to come.

“Right away we were able to find common ground on things that we do compared to things that they do,” Hildebrand said. “Coming from the motorsports community, there is so much crossover in terms of the way that things happen at NASA.”

Added Daly, “This is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Check out some of the many tweets both drivers and their new friends, the astronauts in the ISS, posted, as well as tweets of others including Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles:

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