Photo: David Griffin/NMPA

Mario Andretti honored by national motorsports press group

Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. – Even though the national and local motorsports media has been decimated by layoffs and beat eliminations over the last several years, Saturday’s National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame induction ceremonies proved that there still is power of the press.

The NMPA inducted three heavyweights of their respective areas, honoring the legendary Mario Andretti, NASCAR crew chief/team owner Ray Evernham and noted journalist Steve Waid.

Andretti was honored for a lifetime of achievement across several forms of motorsports, including being a past Formula One and four-time Indy car champion, as well as Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 winner.

Voted “Driver of the Century” by several media entities over the years including the Associated Press and Racer magazine, Andretti, who turns 74 on Feb. 28, looked like he could still climb into a modern-day Indy car and give today’s stars a run for their money.

Being voted into the NMPA Hall of Fame was one of the highlights of his career, Andretti said.

“You get that beautiful call and then it gives you a chance to pause and look back at everything that has happened to you, to count your blessings,” he said. “The greatest compliment is your work has been acknowledged, and this (his induction) is what it’s all about.”

In typical gentlemanly fashion, Andretti was humbled by the honor, while at the same time stressing that even while the media ranks have greatly decreased in recent years, there is still a significant need for the media.

“I feel almost like an intruder because it’s motorsports press. I’ve never written a column in my life,” Andretti said with a smile.

He added in a more serious vein, “I don’t think anyone appreciates the value of the press more than I do, because we all need to realize that no matter how exciting the sport can be, the talent involved and so forth.

“But unless there is somebody out there to tell the story, there’s no value and nobody knows. It’s because of the press that the sport of motor racing is enjoying the popularity that it’s enjoying today, no question about it.”

Andretti reminisced about his storied career, giving particular credit to his wife of 54 years, Dee Ann, as well as reflecting upon some of the downsides of his four-decade racing career.

“(Dee Ann’s) not a race fan, either. But somehow, she got sucked into it,” he said with a laugh. “All along, she held everything solid behind. God knows I was selfish, I just wanted to race, there were no picnics on weekends for us. (My daughter Barbie) reminded me, ‘Dad, you were not even at my graduation.’ I know, and I’m so sorry, but I had to work.”

And work Andretti did, becoming one of the greatest and most successful drivers in all motorsports, particularly with his versatility and willingness to drive pretty much anything that had four wheels on it.

He drew a huge round of laughs from the approximately 250 attendees at the induction banquet when he related a story involving eldest son Michael, who is now the principal owner of the Andretti Autosport car on the Izod IndyCar Series.

“Michael was in school at six or seven years old, and the teacher asked the kids what their fathers did,” Mario said. “She got to Michael and Michael said, ‘He goes to the airport and makes bread.’ The reason he said that is he’d always see me pack my suitcase and my helmet bag and he’d ask, ‘Dad, where are you going?’ I’d tell him, ‘I’m going to the airport. Got to make the bread.’ ”

Andretti was presented for induction into the NMPA Hall of Fame by NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey, who observed that even in retirement, Andretti is still a man in demand, particularly by members of the media.

“You were so appealing to the media,” Diffey said of Andretti. “You were always available. … I don’t think you’ve ever had a bad soundbite. You’re always guaranteed to give a good quote. It’s still happening today – Mario gets asked 20 to 30 times a month to be interviewed by various publications because Mario has a legitimate choice and a legitimate opinion.”

Andretti was awarded the traditional grey NMPA jacket and a plaque as symbols of his induction.

“I count my blessings every day because I’ve been so, so fortunate to have a long career and be able to meet so many incredible people along the way – and some of them are in this room,” he said. “I look back (on his storied career) with no regrets whatsoever. … To be able to have a long career like I have … it allowed me to retire on my own terms.”

F1 Paddock Pass: McLaren MCL32 Honda Launch (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

The week of Formula 1 car launches continue with two more today, the Ferrari SF70H online and later, the McLaren MCL32 Honda in Woking, in the U.K.

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass continues along with it, with NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales making the trip to the McLaren Technology Center (MTC) for today’s McLaren launch of the new orange-and-black liveried car.

Hopes are high that the Honda-powered McLaren will be more than just troubling the midfield this year, and instead making that next leap back into the upper crust of Formula 1, where both McLaren and Honda have so much history together.

Those tasked with that goal include American Zak Brown, the team’s new executive director, drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, and a host of others including but not limited to Jonathan Neale and Eric Boullier of McLaren, and Yusuke Hasegawa of Honda.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Stay tuned for more on NBCSports.com in the buildup to testing next week in Barcelona. A recap of the launches held this weekend will come next week, to link up with the start of testing on February 27 at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona.

NHRA Funny Car: Cruz Pedregon ready to ‘retool, regroup and reload’ in 2017

2015 NHRA Englishtown
(Photos courtesy Toyota Racing)
Leave a comment

Veteran Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon is used to winning races and championships.

He’s tied with the legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for fifth on the NHRA all-time Funny Car wins list with 35 triumphs.

He also is a two-time NHRA Funny Car season champion (1992, 2008).

But the driver of the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car is not used to the kind of dismal season he had in 2016 – and he’s bound and determined to dramatically change that in 2017.

The 2016 season was the worst of Pedregon’s career. He failed to win a race for the second straight season, failed to advance past the first round of eliminations in 18 of the season’s 24 races, failed to qualify for the sport’s biggest race of the season — the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis — and missed qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

2017 NHRA Pomona Winternationals

When the season concluded, Pedregon found himself with a disappointing 12th place finish in the final standings. As far as he was concerned, he only had one place to go, and that was up in 2017.

“I needed to go through a rebuilding mode, like they do in football, baseball and basketball,” Pedregon told MotorSportsTalk. “I had to do a better job of bringing people in and figuring out what I needed to purchase as an owner.

“That’s not how I want to race, so I made the changes I felt we needed to make.”

The biggest change was the guy under the hood. As both a driver and team owner, Pedregon had tuned his own car since 2010. But during the off-season, he hired a new crew chief, Aaron Brooks, formerly of the Lucas Oil Top Fuel team that disbanded after last season.

“At the end of the day, the competition has raised the bar the last two years,” the 53-year-old Pedregon said. “Unless you’re part of a satellite team or part of a multi-car team, those things can elude you if you’re a single car team.

“So, I feel not being part of a multi-car team and not really having a crew chief or car chief that had some connection with the technology, I just felt we got behind from a technical standpoint and it caught up to us.

“We had some good years in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and ‘13 was my best year (since his last championship season in 2008). We won four races and were in the championship conversation all the way up to the end (finished fourth, preceded by fourth-place finish in 2012 and third-place finish in 2011).

“Then in 2014, we dropped off a little bit (finished 10th), and 2015 (finished ninth) we declined in performance and consistency and then we hit the bottom last year. So, I had to retool, regroup and reload, and that’s what I did by hiring Aaron, who was with the Lucas Oil Top Fuel time for the last five years.

“Aaron has great attention to detail and is very crafty. He’s kind of a throwback crew chief. More modern-day crew chiefs sit behind a computer and makes calls based on data, while Aaron is more of a hands-on guy, working with the team. My team really needed that.

“I feel now we have a car that’s built properly, it’s on-par or exceeds what’s currently out there winning the races. Now what lies ahead of us is to go out and execute. We have to go out and prove that not only can we build a nice car and have a nice influx of equipment, and now we’re going to go out on the track.”

Because Brooks did not join the team until January, Pedregon had limited preseason testing. In the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, California two weeks ago, Pedregon failed to advance past the first round.

nhra-arizona-nationals-logo

But that’s going to change, Pedregon promises. He comes into this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix looking for bigger and better results.

“We need these runs under our belts so we can get the consistency that we need to race with these guys,” Pedregon said. “I feel like performance-wise, we’re going to be right near the top. I’d say top-five is what we’re shooting for and I don’t see why we can’t start that this weekend in Phoenix.”

By the same token, Pedregon is prepared to bide his time if additional patience and time is needed to get back into the thick of the Funny Car ranks.

“We’re going to experience some growing pains, but there’s not a guy on this team that doesn’t feel like the potential is through the roof,” Pedregon said. “Personally, I think we won the off-season free agency game in landing Aaron Brooks.

“Yeah, we lost early in Pomona, but the sky is the limit with this group. We ran a career-best in a ‘must’ qualifying run on Saturday.

“Realistically, it may take four or five races, but I don’t think much more than that. Much like a football team, the first two quarters may not show what we’ve got, but the last two quarters, we’ll really show what we have.

“I’m motivated like no other. I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulder because the last couple of years. While I was optimistic, I had to really go through that to get to the point where I’m at now and say, ‘Look, I can’t do this by myself. I tried.’

“That being said, I’ve enjoyed some good years with crew chiefs. The last time I had a bonafide crew chief, who really gets in there and does what a crew chief does, was back in 2007 through 2009 with Rahn Tobler, and in those three years, we won a championship.

“Now we’ve got Aaron on board … any time I pull up to the line, I feel we have a shot to win.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Michelin gathers all GTLM cars, road going cars at Sebring (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

One of the elements about sports car racing that is pretty cool is that there is a huge track-to-street correlation, with manufacturers using what they learn at the track and helping to build for their street product.

Although Michelin welcomes and generally prefers competition within the GT Le Mans class, the only class open to tire competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, at the moment it works with all five manufacturers present – Chevrolet, Ford, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW.

Given the unique opportunity and the timing of this week’s IMSA test at Sebring International Raceway, Michelin organized a special track-to-street photo and video shoot to bring each of the race cars that compete in the class together with its equivalent road going variant on the same track at the same time.

The Corvette C7.R, Ford GT, Porsche 911 RSR (now mid-engined), Ferrari 488 GTE and BMW M6 GTLM are the five cars that currently compete in the GTLM class.

From a Michelin release:

“We want to create special content to show consumers the incredibly tight and authentic track-to-street links for Michelin and our technical partners, and to showcase the WeatherTech Championship and the GTLM class,” said Sarah Robinson, motorsport marketing manager, Michelin North America.

“When you see the two cars side-by-side you realize just how close the collaboration is with Michelin and our technical partners.”

Close on the heels of the successful launch experience of the MICHELIN Pilot Sport 4 S, the strong images and video captured at Sebring this week continue to tell the story of Michelin performance and safety.

See the video above and the overall main image, below. The 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring runs March 18.

michelinallcars
Photo courtesy Michelin North America

Graham Rahal visits the Honda Classic (PHOTOS)

img_0685
Rahal for the putt. Photo courtesy Honda Racing
Leave a comment

In the buildup to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg on March 12, a number of drivers are visiting other sporting events of note.

Graham Rahal has been one of the busiest. The driver of the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing made a pit stop at the Bridgestone Winter Classic in January and this week has been out to the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Anyway, 28-year-old Rahal is an avid PGA Tour follower and fan and when time allows, brushes off his own set of clubs for the event’s Honda Classic Cares Pro Am presented by Tire Kingdom. He’s also used golf as a fundraiser; he’s raised over $300,000 to benefit children’s charities (with the golf tournament he did around the Indy 500).

Rahal, who won the Pro Am twice in 2011 and 2012 and came second the next year with motorsports fan Rickie Fowler, himself one of the young stars on the PGA Tour, was only able to get in four holes this week owing to poor weather. But with a new putter that’s the same model as the one used by recent world number one player Jason Day, Rahal sank a rather impressive 40-foot putt. Rahal was playing in a group with Smylie Kaufman, and credited him for the advice.

A handful of photos from the event are below (courtesy Honda Racing):

Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.