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Pagenaud primed for full title challenge in year three at SPM

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Simon Pagenaud and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team have already nailed a few items on their to-do list over the last two years in the IndyCar Series.

Rookie-of-the-year, check. First win, check.

Series title? Could well be a check at the end of August.

The first two years of the Pagenaud and SPM narrative have centered on two things: his return to open-wheel racing after a successful four-year sports car sojourn, and the team as the “plucky underdog” punching above its weight, challenging the established Ganassi/Penske/Andretti “big dogs” with higher budgets.

There’s elements of those two that will probably carry over into 2014, notably on the commercial side without a sponsor for departing primary backer HP yet to be determined. There is interest, though, from multiple companies.

But clearly, Pagenaud and SPM have proven enough on the competition side over the last two years to where it’s not a question of if they’ll be challenging for wins. It’s more a question now of how many wins, and whether Pagenaud will advance those last two positions in the standings to win the 2014 crown.

“That’s the goal, for sure,” Pagenaud said in a phone interview on Monday. “We’ve done so well in the last two years. I think the team has done a tremendous job. We have extracted almost the best of everything we can.”

Pagenaud and the technical team, led by his longtime engineer Ben Bretzman, still acknowledge they have more work to do to continue to improve. The team seeks to understand the tires better and Pagenaud, who is widely acknowledged as one of the best racers in the series, could do better in qualifying. The Frenchman made only one Firestone Fast Six appearance in 2013, although he had three other top-six starts on road and street courses in abnormal qualifying formats.

Then there’s the wild card that Pagenaud and SPM should be able to handle better, at least initially, than the other Honda teams: the manufacturer’s switch to a twin-turbo format. The IndyCar Series mandated the switch for 2014 but Honda planned to make the move anyway. Pagenaud already has had three tests with the new powerplant and is encouraged with the progress.

“The starting point was very exciting, promising; Honda has been tremendous to work on the driveability side,” he explained. “We know the tools we’ll need to use to make the twin turbo easier to drive. The baseline is very competitive.

“The single didn’t have any turbo lag … it behaved like a normally aspirated engine,” he added. “Now, with the twin-turbo, the power comes in differently. We’re just trying to understand how to make it smoother. That’s what we’re working on. Once the engine is fully turned up, we’ll see how it is.”

This year Honda loses Chip Ganassi Racing and gains Andretti Autosport, but SPM was the first team to confirm its plans to return with Honda for 2014. Sam Schmidt and team co-owner Ric Peterson announced that news at Sonoma last August.

There’s another wild card too, in the form of Pagenaud’s second straight rookie teammate, Russian Mikhail Aleshin, who replaces Tristan Vautier. Aleshin was a surprise pick in November after one test, but already has a working relationship with Pagenaud from when they raced together in Europe. As Pagenaud describes, the 26-year-old is a no-nonsense, down-to-business driver.

“He’ll fit in well,” Pagenaud said. “He’s got a lot of experience from Formula Renault and GP2, and he got down to business straightaway. He’s very focused. He doesn’t seem to be very emotional – maybe because of his nationality – but he’s a very cool guy. He’ll be pushing me.”

Pagenaud’s next on-track action will be at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 25-26, in an Extreme Speed Motorsports HPD ARX-03b. Pagenaud missed the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test earlier this month but, given his history of racing HPD prototypes, will be up to speed in no time.

His next IndyCar test is an aerodynamic test at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Jan. 30. Aleshin will have his first oval test at Homestead-Miami Speedway Jan. 28.

Their collective process of continuing the title push – even this early in the calendar year – builds.

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski