Alex Zanardi returns to GT racing with BMW

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It’s hard not to love Alex Zanardi. The former CART champion and ex-Formula One driver who suffered the terrible accident at Germany in 2001 that cost him both his legs, continues to amaze and surprise on a regular basis.

The 47-year-old Italian will be back in a race car this year, in a modified BMW Z4 GT3 to compete in the Blancpain GT Series with the ROAL Motorsport BMW team. That reunited him with the team he competed with in the FIA World Touring Car Championship, where Zanardi won a handful of races.

Since he’s been out of the cockpit, Zanardi has turned to hand cycling and won two gold medals at the 2012 Paralympics. He also made the trip to the Indianapolis 500 this past year, where he was awarded his car from the 1996 CART race at Laguna Seca where he made “the pass” on Bryan Herta at the Corkscrew.

“Even after leaving the sport in 2009, I was still a racing driver at heart,” he said. “When I took to the track in the BMW M3 DTM at the end of 2012, I immediately got itchy fingers again. Ever since that moment I have been toying with the idea of returning to motor racing.”

And we’re delighted to see it come to fruition. The Blancpain GT schedule begins April 12-13 at Monza; a full link to the schedule is here via the ROAL Motorsport website.

Zach Veach ticks all the right boxes in Barber debut weekend

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On paper, starting and finishing 19th in one race is nothing impressive. Zach Veach’s weekend at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was not something that can merely be categorized as “by the books,” though.

The 22-year-old rookie out of Stockdale, Ohio made all the right progression throughout his first full weekend in the Verizon IndyCar Series, a confidence booster that saw him improve methodically with each passing session and then finish all 90 laps in his race debut.

Veach was called up as an injury fill-in for JR Hildebrand, sidelined after sustaining a broken bone in his left hand on the last lap at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, to drive the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on the notoriously difficult, physical Barber Motorsports Park circuit.

Despite starting a bit off the mark by current, entirely compressed IndyCar standards where a second usually covers the entire field, Veach closed the gap to the overall leader from 2.5 seconds in first practice to 2 in the second, and down to 1.7 by qualifying. Similarly, he closed on teammate Spencer Pigot in each session as well, from 1.5 off in first practice to 1.1 in the second, 0.8 in the third and just 0.5 in qualifying.

More to the point, he stayed out of trouble with no major mistakes on or off track, and his Ed Carpenter Racing team was smart to not run him in the treacherous rain and damp conditions in Sunday morning warmup. Hildebrand, too, took Veach under his wing playing mentor and coach in a weekend he didn’t expect to be sidelined – but was gracious as ever.

Veach ran as high as fourth in the race off-sequence on the first stint, and his only major faux pas was when he came back into the pits on a closed pit following a restart and took additional service. That netted him a drive-through and probably cost him about two spots, but it was hardly an egregious error.

“Overall, I’m pretty happy with our first Verizon IndyCar Series weekend,” said Veach, who was participating in his first IndyCar running since a single test day with ECR at Sonoma last September.

“For what it was coming in here on short notice and a limited amount of time to get familiar with the car, I’m really happy with the progress that we made. I couldn’t have done it without the help of JR Hildebrand and the entire crew at Ed Carpenter Racing.”

Although Veach co-drove in a two-plus hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship sports car race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2015 in a JDC-Miller Motorsports Prototype Challenge car, he hadn’t run a race as long as this one on his own in his career. All the races he’d run in Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires races between Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 since 2010 were an hour or less.

“Everyone here was so open to helping get me up to speed,” he said. “They helped me from Lap 1 all the way to the end of the race. This was the longest race I’ve ever done in my life and part of that was learning how to save fuel and doing my first real race pit stops. Overall, I’m pretty happy with how it went. Granted, I think we would have loved to have a little more speed, but with the amount of time I had in the car, to come home where we did I think says a lot!”

Veach now has a full race under his belt before he debuts at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in a third Chevrolet-powered entry for AJ Foyt Racing.

The Ed Carpenter Racing driver lineup will again be a story this week heading into Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Hildebrand is hoping to be cleared to drive but if not, it remains to be seen whether Veach will get another shot, or whether Pigot gets a call-up for what would be only his second oval start in an IndyCar. Team owner Carpenter is slated to make his first start of 2017 next weekend in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. On Sunday, Pigot ran as high as fourth after starting 17th but had a spin off Turn 5 that cost him a likely second straight top-10 result, having run eighth most of his second stint.

Veach now joins the list of young guns with recent Indy Lights experience – Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Stefan Wilson among others – with only a handful of IndyCar starts under their belt awaiting a full-time shot, but can now say he is an IndyCar driver for life.

Pagenaud banks third straight top-five despite fuel saving frustration

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With finishes of second, fifth and third in the first three races of 2017, defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud is off to a pretty good start.

Except that because of his unreal start to 2016 when he finished second twice and won in Round 3, it seems like far less by comparison.

Pagenaud finally put together his most complete start-to-finish weekend of the new year at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, starting and finishing third in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

This result comes after a perhaps lucky 14th to second run in St. Petersburg and then a comeback from 21st and last to fifth in Long Beach two weeks ago.

The Frenchman made the most of the worst pit stall in pit lane this weekend, because after incurring that penalty for qualifying interference at Long Beach two weeks ago he’d be right at pit in and be compromised compared to those near pit out.

That made his team’s performance throughout the weekend all the better, even if Pagenaud was frustrated to be in fuel save mode for the final stint.

“It’s been a good weekend. We unfortunately carried a penalty from Long Beach. So starting every qualifying session, practice at the back of the pack puts you in a bad rhythm,” Pagenaud explained in the post-race press conference. “So I’m very happy we were able to transform that into good qualifying results, and also a good result in the end of the race.

“It was pretty eventful. At the start of the race, I feel like we were a little too aggressive with the racecar. We adjusted. At the end, I was really good. I saved quite a bit of fuel at the end to make it.

“It was frustrating, I got to say. I just wanted to go.”

The day was weirder for Pagenaud because he was the only one of the four Team Penske drivers who didn’t lead a lap. Eventual race winner Josef Newgarden led the final 14 laps en route to his first win with the team, while Will Power dominated with 60 laps led before his late race puncture resigned him to 14th. Helio Castroneves finished fourth and led two laps on a pit cycle.

Pagenaud never got higher than third, where he finished. He noted a difficulty in the tire wear at the start of the race, as rain washed all the rubber down from earlier in the weekend, comprising five different types of tire manufacturers over the six series racing at Barber.

“The rain was the biggest effect last night. It really cleaned off the track,” he said. “The first stint personally was very difficult for us, quite a bit of tire wear. Balance wasn’t what we expected. Then the track got better toward the end, and the tires hung on better, I think.

“Yeah, it was different to yesterday, for sure. A lot of less tire degradation. Last year felt like we had a lot more tire degradation, too.”

Even though his title defense has been overshadowed so far in 2017 by all three winners, Pagenaud’s still in a good spot through three races. Pagenaud and Scott Dixon are the only two drivers with three top-five finishes in every race so far this year.

Pagenaud sits fourth in points, 11 behind his old Peugeot LMP1 teammate Sebastien Bourdais who leads the championship, and just four off Newgarden, who took the headlines on Sunday with his first win for his new team.

Still, not a bad day for the guy who heading into the race, discovered how to speak “Southern.”

Marquez adds to COTA win streak while Vinales crashes out

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Death, taxes and Marc Marquez winning MotoGP’s annual trip to Circuit of The Americas in the spring seem to be things you can bank on.

The Spaniard won again on Sunday, his incredible fifth straight win at the Austin road course, in as many attempts. It’s also his 11th straight victory on United States soil.

The Repsol Honda rider took the victory with Movistar Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi in second and the second of the Honda riders, Dani Pedrosa, completing the podium. Rossi made it past Pedrosa for second despite an earlier slide off, but was 3.069 seconds adrift of Marquez.

Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco completed the top five.

Meanwhile, Rossi’s teammate Maverick Vinales meanwhile crashed out early, putting pause to his chances of a season-opening three-peat. He crashed out a Turn 18 and was OK after the incident, but has now lost the points lead.

Rossi’s up by six points, 56-50, over Vinales with Marquez third on 38 points.

A trip to Jerez on May 7 is next up as MotoGP races in Europe for the first time this year. The series has opened with three flyaway races to Qatar, Argentina and the U.S.

NHRA: Pritchett, Capps, Butner capture wins in Springnationals near Houston

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Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) had some spring in their step – and gas pedal – on Sunday, capturing their respective classes in the NHRA Springnationals.

Here’s how the final round broke down at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas, the fifth race on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule:

* In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.781 seconds at 321.96 mph) earned her third win of the young season, defeating Steve Torrence (3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph) in the final round.

“Our goal was to leave as the points leader and that was not easy at all,” Pritchett said. “Going into the final we said this is our bounce back and we’re going to keep it interesting.

“I’ve never been in a position to really be counting points and I know it is early in the season, but I’m definitely enjoying that.”

On the way to the final round matchup with Torrence, Pritchett defeated Scott Palmer, Doug Kalitta and defending Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who is also her teammate at Don Schumacher Racing.

Pritchett’s bragging rights were a bit more than usual, as her husband works on Torrence’s pit crew.

* In Funny Car, Capps – who won his first national championship last season – earned his first win of the season.

Capps (4.004 seconds at 284.33 mph) defeated Robert Hight (4.107 seconds, 202.88 mph) to claim the 51st win of his NHRA career, as well as his third triumph at Royal Purple Raceway.

“These things become so hard to win these days,” Capps said. “But you take things for granted where I felt like we should’ve won at any of those first three races of the season.

“NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car division has to be the most competitive thing in the world right now; its cut-throat.”

The final matchup was anything but ordinary for both drivers: Capps’ engine exploded just before the finish line, while Hight had engine issues and crossed the center line, marking an automatic disqualification.

Along the way to the final round, Capps defeated Todd Simpson, 16-time world champion John Force and teammate Jack Beckman.

* In Pro Stock, Butner (6.550 seconds, 212.26 mph) claimed his first career Pro Stock win, defeating No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin (6.562 seconds, 212.03 mph).

It was Butner’s first win and seventh career final round appearance, while Coughlin reached his first final round since ’s first final round appearance at Seattle in 2015.

“Any win that you stand on that stage, Super Stock, Super Street or whatever it is (the feeling) never gets old,” Butner said. “It’s a great feeling and you can’t explain it unless you experience it.

“To make four consecutive win lights is very tough and a lot harder than I expected.”

Butner defeated Allen Johnson and four-time champ Greg Anderson before facing Coughlin in the final round. Only 13 cars qualified in Pro Stock, short of the usual 16-car field.

MORE: NHRA: Pro Stock teams get into confrontation during Houston race

The series now moves on to zMax Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, April 28-30, for the eighth annual Four-Wide Nationals.

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

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Steve Torrence; 3. Antron Brown; 4. Clay Millican; 5. Doug Kalitta; 6. Bob Vandergriff; 7. Tony Schumacher; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr.; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Brittany Force; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Steven Chrisman; 16. Troy Buff.

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

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Greg Anderson; 4. Tanner Gray; 5. Chris McGaha; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Richie Stevens; 8. Erica Enders; 9. Alex Laughlin; 10. Allen Johnson; 11. Drew Skillman; 12. Jason Line; 13. Alan Prusiensky.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Steve Matusek; 2. Shane Molinari; 3. Mike Castellana; 4. Jonathan Gray; 5. Danny Rowe; 6. Mike Janis; 7. Troy Coughlin; 8. Shannon Jenkins; 9. Chuck Little; 10. Michael Biehle; 11.Eric Latino; 12. Steven Whiteley; 13. Larry Morgan; 14. Khalid alBalooshi; 15. Sidnei Frigo.

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

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.781 seconds, 321.96 mph  def. Steve Torrence, 3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.004, 284.33  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.550, 212.26  def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: Steve Matusek, Chevy Camaro, 8.985, 124.96  def. Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, Foul – Red Light.

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

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.758, 322.11 def. Troy Buff, Broke; Clay Millican, 3.729, 326.79 def. Steven Chrisman, 9.654, 83.58; Troy Coughlin Jr., 3.852, 277.20 def. Brittany Force, 3.871, 274.55; Doug Kalitta, 3.761, 325.06 def. Terry McMillen, 3.833, 315.86; Antron Brown, 3.752, 321.04 def. Terry Haddock, 3.931, 283.79; Steve Torrence, 3.748, 324.20 def. Shawn Reed, 3.867, 315.86; Leah Pritchett, 3.748, 324.59 def. Scott Palmer, 4.766, 152.52; Bob Vandergriff, 3.770, 323.43 def.Shawn Langdon, 3.813, 318.84;

QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.766, 326.00 def. Vandergriff, 3.778, 323.89; Millican, 3.784, 320.97 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 317.34; Torrence, 3.755, 324.20 def. Coughlin Jr., 6.779, 93.70; Pritchett, 3.763, 324.05 def. Kalitta, 3.759, 326.56;

SEMIFINALS — Pritchett, 3.772, 319.45 def. Brown, 3.815, 322.11; Torrence, 3.760, 323.27 def. Millican, 8.621, 87.00; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.781, 321.96 def. Torrence, 3.787, 322.11.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.897, 327.90 def. Todd Simpson, Chevy Camaro, 11.347, 81.01; Courtney Force, Camaro, 5.344, 132.02 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 10.819, 77.81; John Force, Camaro, 4.216, 220.08 def. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.485, 205.51; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.870, 331.77 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.543, 195.51; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.959, 323.58 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.935, 322.04; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.224, 222.62 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.142, 162.12; Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.944, 326.16 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.556, 190.16; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.927, 327.03 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 8.109, 112.19;

QUARTERFINALS — Capps, 3.951, 321.04 def. Lindberg, 5.159, 153.63; Hight, 3.898, 327.82 def. Todd, 3.958, 324.36; Beckman, 3.897, 329.18 def. J. Force, 4.134, 273.39; C. Force, 3.947, 294.37 def.DeJoria, 4.146, 260.16;

SEMIFINALS — Hight, 3.908, 324.98 def. C. Force, 3.943, 324.28; Capps, 3.926, 325.37 def. Beckman, 6.126, 114.85;

FINAL — Capps, 4.004, 284.33 def. Hight, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.565, 211.86 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.548, 211.89 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.581, 210.97; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.555, 212.03 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.563, 210.90; Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, 6.589,210.64 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.536, 211.46 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.588, 211.03; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.523, 213.33 def. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.567, 211.16; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.499, 213.03 was unopposed;

QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.547, 211.86 def. Stevens, 6.628, 209.75; Anderson, 6.558, 211.73 def.Nobile, 6.590, 211.73; Butner, 6.544, 212.06 was unopposed; Coughlin, 6.546, 211.73 def. McGaha, 6.574, 211.43;

SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.558, 211.63 def. Gray, Foul – Red Light; Butner, 6.536, 212.69 def.Anderson, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.550, 212.26 def. Coughlin, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: ROUND ONE — Bob Rahaim, Chevy Corvette, DQ def. Sidnei Frigo, Corvette, DQ; Troy Coughlin, Corvette, 5.789, 251.77 def. Khalid alBalooshi, Chevy Camaro, 10.699, 82.60; Steve Matusek, Camaro, 5.817, 250.18 def. Steven Whiteley, Cadillac CTS-V, 6.273, 175.11; Mike Janis, Camaro, 5.825,246.53 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.934, 224.06; Danny Rowe, Corvette, 5.811, 250.00 def. Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.707, 161.83; Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, 5.815, 254.76 def. Chuck Little, Corvette, 5.816, 247.34; Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 5.815, 223.17 def. Shannon Jenkins, Ford Mustang, 5.809, 240.68; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.722, 251.77 def. Michael Biehle, Mustang, 5.845, 254.66;

QUARTERFINALS — Castellana, 5.685, 252.99 was unopposed; Gray, 5.801, 250.04 def. Coughlin, 10.018, 81.15; Matusek, 5.793, 251.77 def. Rowe, 5.944, 208.42; Molinari, 5.811, 255.92 def. Janis, 6.446, 167.72;

SEMIFINALS — Molinari, 5.843, 240.38 def. Gray, 9.355, 94.35; Matusek, 5.804, 251.95 def.Castellana, 7.361, 130.30;

FINAL — Matusek, 8.985, 124.96 def. Molinari, Foul – Red Light.

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

POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 494; 2. Antron Brown, 440; 3. Tony Schumacher, 438; 4. Doug Kalitta, 358; 5. Steve Torrence, 352; 6. Brittany Force, 282; 7. Clay Millican, 269; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr., 228; 9. Terry McMillen, 195; 10. Scott Palmer, 180.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan, 400; 2. Ron Capps, 398; 3. John Force, 371; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 357; 5. (tie) Courtney Force, 301; Robert Hight, 301; 7. Jack Beckman, 282; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, 235; 9. J.R. Todd, 222; 10. Jim Campbell, 211.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 457; 2. Bo Butner, 426; 3. Jason Line, 403; 4. Jeg Coughlin, 372; 5. Tanner Gray, 370; 6. Shane Gray, 278; 7. Erica Enders, 255; 8. Chris McGaha, 246; 9. Vincent Nobile, 235; 10. Drew Skillman, 225.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Mike Castellana, 169; 2. Steve Matusek, 147; 3. Steven Whiteley, 146; 4. Danny Rowe, 129; 5. Troy Coughlin, 125; 6. Shane Molinari, 106; 7. Mike Janis, 104; 8. Michael Biehle, 82; 9. Eric Latino, 78; 10. Jonathan Gray, 77.

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