Ever since he became a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 2007 at the age of 21, David Ragan’s performance has been kind of stuck in neutral – not by choice, mind you.
But for whatever reason – with the exception of a career-best 13th-place finish with Roush Fenway Racing in 2008 – Ragan has finished consistently between 23rd and 28th in the other six of his seven Sprint Cup seasons.
That’s hopefully going to change in 2014. After winning at Talladega last spring (Ragan’s second career Sprint Cup win), being pushed to the finish line by Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland, it gave the entire team a David definitely can beat Goliath kind of confidence.
And if 2014 goes the way Ragan hopes, there’ll be a lot more giant killing to do during the 36-race Sprint Cup season.
“That was a big day for our team and me and David (Gilliland) personally,” Ragan said recently. “A 1-2 finish was something to be proud about. It was an opportunity for us to continue to build our brand.
“Definitely, a lot of good things came from that. It gives our guys motivation that if we all execute the plan we have, that we can win another one if the stars align right and if we put ourselves in the right position. We can’t win races running 20th or 25th, but if we can get to that top 10 or top five, we can win a race. We can win some this year at several different tracks. You’ve got to win one before you win two and before you win three.”
The Unadilla, Ga., native has seen a completely different side of the Sprint Cup world since joining Front Row in 2012 after his contract was not renewed by Roush Fenway when enough sponsorship couldn’t be found.
After five seasons with one of Sprint Cup’s premier teams, signing up with Front Row kind of brought Ragan back to his roots of working with smaller teams before he got his big break with Roush in 2005.
“I’ve kind of matured and opened my eyes up a little bit,” Ragan said. “I was a young guy, 19 years old, when I started at Roush. You come in and it’s a fast-paced world, I’m running Nationwide races and Cup races and traveling to 30-40 sponsor appearances a year.
“You don’t really see the big picture. You have tunnel vision, where you see what you’re doing that given time. That makes it tough and it was tough for me to learn at a young age, so coming to Front Row, a little smaller organization and not as many commitments outside of the race track, you do get a chance to step back and see what’s important in the real world.
“Definitely, my profession and career as a race car driver, I want to be successful and win races, but it’s also important to have a good family, your friends, your loved ones, spend some time with your old grandparents and things. You kind of see what’s going on. That’s probably the difference in between 19 years old and 28 years old.”
Had NASCAR expanded the field of the Chase for the Sprint Cup from 12 to 16 last season, Ragan would have made the 10-race playoffs by virtue of his Talladega win. Even though he didn’t make the Chase, Ragan believes there’s plenty of carryover from last season that can serve as motivation for his efforts in 2014.
“The opportunity to have a few more guys in the Chase is great,” Ragan said. “I think the way it’s going to happen, when you have teams being eliminated from the actual championship contention, that’s a good format, in my opinion.
“To have a Front Row Motorsports capable to make the Chase, you have to step your game up. You’re not going to be able to goof off for nine races and win the championship. You’re going to have to be competitive every single race and win some races throughout the year. Winning is all we want to do, it’s what the fans want to see and I think NASCAR has given us what everybody wants to see.”
Ragan comes from a racing family, one with roots that date back to the earliest days of NASCAR, when his grandfather competed on the beaches of Daytona. Ragan’s father, Ken, competed in 50 career Cup races from 1983 to 1990.
And now third-generation David is carrying on the family tradition. Even though he considers himself an old school racer, Ragan likes the changes NASCAR has made to the Chase, particularly the incentive and excitement that comes with it, and the ability to create a scenario that will mean greater excitement, bigger TV ratings and attract new fans to the sport.
“I guarantee you that whoever wins the Daytona 500, one of their first thoughts is that ‘I’m going to be in the Chase at Chicagoland,'” Ragan said. “It gives me chill bumps about (possibly making the Chase). I’m excited, and I couldn’t be more of a traditional fan.
“My grandfather and family was entering NASCAR races back in the late 1940s, so we’ve been around this sport for a long time. I love all forms of auto racing. I couldn’t be more excited about the upcoming season. I think we have to continue to evolve our sport based on the fans that we have in the world, and based on the world as it changes.
“You look at other sports and they’re consistently making small changes and tweaks. The fundamental parts are always going to be there: You’re going to have 43 cars, you have to go and race and the best guy is going to win.
“It is a game changer and is something that in a positive way can be a great thing for our sport. We all live on instant news, we want every football game to come a time-expired field goal being kicked, or a baseball game in the bottom of the ninth and the team from behind and win, or the 2007 Red Sox, where they came back from an 0-3 deficit. That’s the stuff you always remember, and this is kind of setting it up to have those kinds of finishes.”
First came Gray Family team patriarch Johnny Gray, who had a standout career in the NHRA Funny Car and Pro Stock ranks.
Then came his son, Shane, who took over the family’s Pro Stock car reins.
And now, Johnny’s grandson and Shane’s son, Tanner, will carry on the Gray family racing heritage in 2017.
The Gray family announced over the weekend that Shane will step out of the family’s Gray Motorsports Valvoline/Nova Services Pro Stock Chevrolet at the end of this season.
Exit Shane (at least for 2017), enter Tanner.
“I’m not driving next year,” Shane Gray said in a media release. “I’m going to let (Tanner) drive the car, and I’ll be there to support the team. I’ll be there for him and wherever he needs help.
“We’re very active in drag racing. He wants to drive the car, and I’m 100 percent cool with that. It’s always better for the dad to sit back and watch the kid than do it yourself. It’s just time to let him drive.”
Interestingly, Shane Gray is currently ranked fourth in the Pro Stock rankings with two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
Shane Gray, who has four career Pro Stock wins, is only 134 points behind Pro Stock points leader Jason Line, 108 behind second-ranked Greg Anderson and just 20 points behind third-ranked Greg Nobile.
There are a combined 260 points available to be earned by any driver in the remaining two races on the schedule, this weekend in Las Vegas and the season finale Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California.
If Line or Anderson slip in one or both of the races, Gray is still mathematically eligible to steal the championship away, which would be one heck of a way to go out.
Tanner has already begun preparing for his new role, having recently tested at Rockingham (NC) Dragway.
“I’ve been around it since I was 9 or 10 years old,” Tanner Gray, now 18, said. “I think it’s really cool to be able to do what they’ve done. We’ll see if we can win some championships one day. … I’m pretty excited for it.”
Tanner tested both his father’s Pro Stock car and crew chief Dave Connolly’s sportsman car to get a good feel for what his future holds. Having both his father and Connolly in his corner will put him that much further ahead of the game starting next season.
“I think I would’ve been lost if it wasn’t for Dave letting me drive his bracket car, just getting used to the speed and how the car reacts,” Tanner Gray said. “But driving his Cobalt helped a lot more and sped up the progression.”
The third-generation driver has driven a number of different types of race cars, from NHRA Junior Dragsters to Mini Sprints, Outlaw Karts, 360 Sprint Cars, Late Model Stock Cars and even go-karts.
But it’s NHRA that has won his heart and his future.
“We put Tanner in a race car when he was 12 years old,” Shane Gray said of his son. “I have 100 percent confidence in him.
“He’s already made some test laps. Tanner will be fine. We put him in the car, showed him how to do it and what he needed to do, and by the end of the day, we had him going down the race track.”
AUSTIN, Texas – The old adage in the restaurant service industry is that good service can often overcome poor food, but good food does not necessarily overcome poor service.
Such an analogy serves as a perfect transition to describe the last two contrasting years of the United States Grand Prix in Austin at Circuit of The Americas, a city where the food itself is actually never in question.
Consider the race weekend on site as a whole the comparative meal, here.
In 2015, call the race the “good food,” and the overall weather and atmosphere the “poor service.”
The race itself was excellent, aided in large part by the mixed weather conditions, heavy attrition, a late Safety Car and a subsequent pass for the lead and win which netted Lewis Hamilton his third World Championship.
But the weekend on the whole felt underwhelming and disappointing, owing primarily to the heavy rain that interrupted the weekend proceedings through Saturday.
As COTA Chair Bobby Epstein said so bluntly about the resulting attendance and financial hit, “I think we’re screwed.”
That left the 2016 version of the USGP weekend having a point to prove: deliver a weekend on par with the first three weekends and seek to overcome the poor fan turnout a year ago with a big bounce back.
In other words, the service needed to deliver more than the food.
In a two-word answer, it did.
The 2016 United States Grand Prix race – the food here in this analogy – was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. The quality of F1 racing itself is another topic for another day. But thanks to the collective efforts of the track and organizers in partnership with F1, by the race start time it didn’t need to be to make this a successful weekend on the whole.
This race saw Hamilton pretty much ran away and hide, Daniel Ricciardo lose a sure second-place to Nico Rosberg thanks to a Virtual Safety Car period inadvertently caused by his teammate Max Verstappen, Spanish countrymen Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. perform some late-race theatrics and Haas F1 scored a point on home soil in 10th with Romain Grosjean. Otherwise, it was a largely forgettable 56 laps, particularly as it lacked that “signature” moment as Hamilton had delivered with passes for the win in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
But why the weekend worked was how COTA, which has often been in the crosshairs over the years for its volatile financials, leadership, staff turnover and possibly inflated attendance figures (I’m looking at sports car weekends in particular, having been to four of them in the last four years), pushed on to create a near-perfect weekend it absolutely had to have after last year’s disaster.
COTA’s push to make Austin 2016 a successful weekend was, to use your stick-and-ball equivalent example, the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary pass for the Green Bay Packers to break the Detroit Lions’ hearts last year or Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit grand slam for the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS this year to break a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was not a case where they’d gather a few singles to bring in a run on a sacrifice bunt or assemble a 17-play, 94-yard, eight-minute drive full of methodical three and four-yard run and pass plays.
No, COTA threw down the gauntlet and went big to bring in Taylor Swift, for her first and only planned concert this year. And make no mistake, her “squad” brought it in a big way.
Had she not delivered the crowd she did – which was officially pegged by COTA at 83,000 although reports ranged lower than that by some reporters and higher than that to some members of her fan “squad” – it would have been trouble when she walked in.
That alone generated significant buzz on a day when the qualifying order was all but decided going in, when you knew it would either be Hamilton or Rosberg scoring the pole a couple hours earlier.
I was fortunate to be out walking the grounds Saturday afternoon after qualifying, and seeing the crowds hanging out for the remainder of the day’s races – Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup and Historic Masters Racing were also on tap – as well as prepping for T-Swift were very much present between the grandstands, the bar area, the food trucks and then prepping to get in line to waltz onto the Super Stage lawn assembled inside Turn 11.
Once 5:30 p.m. hit and the crowd was released to get in line, 90 minutes before the show started, the line stretched from the entry point past Turn 7 all the way to the Fly Emirates bridge at Turn 2, with more fans continuing to stream in across the bridge. Mind you, that’s the length of the entire Esses section and then back across the way, into the infield.
Sunday’s crowd was also strong, with fans getting to the track early and already a good number of folks already on hand at the hillside several hours before the lights were out.
Between the old Grand Prix cars and Supercup preliminary races, there was some genuine appreciation there.
Yes, mostly gentlemen drivers pushing 1970s to 1980s-era F1 cars at 60 or 70 percent is not the same spectacle as the actual drivers in their heyday, but for younger fans and students of the sport, it’s vitally important you get that chance to witness – and listen to – living F1 history in motion.
Supercup, meanwhile, provided a tasty appetizer of a race with some clean, fair fighting for the lead between Porsche Juniors Mathieu Jaminet and Matteo Cairoli, a deserving new champion in Sven Mueller, and a great Supercup weekend debut for American Alec Udell in his step up from Pirelli World Challenge’ GT Cup class.
Regarding the announced attendance figure of 269,889, it is worth noting that COTA’s attendance numbers have been called into question in the past, primarily for its sports car weekends. This could be an optimistic number, but if so, it’s not to the same degree as on sports car weekends.
For reference, although I wasn’t at the initial USGP race here in 2012 (more than 265,000), I have been to the last four. This weekend number was pegged higher than the 2013 number of 250,324, and while I would say the Friday number was lower this year compared to then, the Saturday and Sunday numbers appeared higher.
If possible, it would benefit COTA to provide a deeper news release and analysis of the figure beyond just the number itself, to dismiss any potential doubts or red flags. But flying out of the Austin airport Monday morning and seeing how packed it was, with many folks still dressed in team kit, was a sign there was a very good turnout this weekend.
The celebrity presence at COTA, while something of a running joke and perhaps source of frustration among hardcore fans and observers, is actually something to be embraced if I’m honest.
Part of the reason Monaco works – and has worked for as long as it has – is it’s because it’s a glamorous destination that attracts some of the world’s richest, most beautiful and popular people. You can choose to not like that fact, saying it takes away from the action on track, and that’s fine. But the allure of an event is amplified when people with big audience consider it worthy of their time to attend.
Lindsey Vonn’s presence among others this weekend was a perfect example. Vonn, the star skier, appears to be a burgeoning racing fan in her own right with her interest piqued by Red Bull, a brand that understands the value of getting stars outside the norm to an event.
The fact Vonn was tweeting about F1 during the weekend (by the way, sending thanks from my colleague Luke and I for a RT of one from @F1onNBCSports) to her hundreds of thousands of followers must be considered a good thing from an “F1 in America actually being taken note of” standpoint.
Add in the random Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar sightings, tennis star Venus Williams (who I almost inadvertently bumped into in the airport this morning), Gerard Butler’s Red Bull podium “shoey,” Gordon Ramsey and Jeff Gordon, and it was a full plate of celebrities here this weekend. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that we didn’t get the obligatory Matt LeBlanc at COTA shot, and unless he was hiding, this would have been the first one he’s missed.
If you create a race weekend that people want to go to and make it a proper full-on experience, it can make it a bigger draw to add stability for an event going forward. And if there’s one thing F1 in the U.S. has perpetually lacked, it’s that: stability. Ultimately, that is the key takeaway I have from the 2016 USGP weekend.
Hamilton, who’s more or less adopted the U.S. as his second home, actually has become something of an unofficial ambassador for this race, and this city of Austin in particular.
In the buildup to the race, Hamilton made a big deal about going on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and for good reason. Ellen has massive audience, and it’s not the usual hardcore race fan. And Hamilton, admittedly, isn’t her usual guest.
Then in his post-race interview with NBCSN’s Will Buxton, Hamilton described why he feels the way he does about this country, and the race in Austin itself.
“This is such a beautiful country,” he said (perhaps he hasn’t been following the 2016 presidential election that closely).
“This race, the whole weekend in Austin, with the ambiance and atmosphere, it’s the only Grand Prix I go out to dinner every night. No other Grand Prix do I do that. Since Wednesday, I’ve gone out to dinner every night. It’s great food, great service, and the people here make us feel so welcome.
“The crowd … is almost like the British Grand Prix. There’s the crowd on the whole front straight when we’re on the podium.
“I’m so glad we still have the grand prix here. I hope it continues. I hope more and more people get exposed to it. Being on The Ellen Show the other day, I hope has done so to get more.”
When Hamilton, who’s a student of the sport and has carved his own legacy within it by winning his 50th Grand Prix of his career this weekend, compares a race site in its fifth year to a race that has graced the calendar all but annually since 1950 (Silverstone), it speaks volumes of that race’s place having established a foothold on the F1 calendar.
COTA has now set the bar from a service standpoint to its fans, and done so in spite of the fact the F1 race itself Sunday wasn’t the best showcase of the sport.
It has now set a standard to meet, to keep the full race weekend as strong as it was this year.
For one year at least, COTA and Austin have shaken off the 2015 blues, thus making it harder for haters to hate.
“Now that we’ve got those two done, it’s a matter of firming up with all of the key individuals on the team and hopefully continue on and win races,” Schmidt told IndyCar.com.
“This deal is all about chemistry and continuity and it’s been a building process for us. Starting in 2011 with one car and then having two cars from 2012 on, we’ve never had the same guy in the second car for a second season.
“Really, Mikhail coming back for a second season, even though there was a year gap, I think you can really see the chemistry and the morale and the continuity building toward the last half of the season, when we were clearly the fastest Honda at most tracks if not all and right up to the front with the top five to eight guys, which is where we want to be.”
Schmidt took over the former FAZZT Race Team, which then featured Alex Tagliani as the driver, prior to 2011. Schmidt had a technical partnership with the Bryan Herta Autosport team that won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with the late Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon later replaced Tagliani in Schmidt’s No. 77 Honda for Kentucky and ultimately his final start in Las Vegas.
New signing Simon Pagenaud asserted himself as team leader from 2012 through 2014, with Tristan Vautier (2013) and Aleshin (2014) coming on board as second full-time driver. Hinchcliffe then took over as SPM lead driver in 2015 when Pagenaud left for Team Penske, before his injuries sustained at the Indianapolis 500 forced a change of driver for the balance of the season.
Owing to a mix of sponsorship and political issues, Aleshin was unable to continue into 2015 with James Jakes filling the spot. But Aleshin came back for a one-off in a third SPM car at the 2015 Sonoma season finale, which blossomed back into the full-time seat once more last year.
With these two Honda seats now secure, it remains to be seen whether SPM will run a third car beyond the month of May, which it has done the last four seasons (driven by Oriol Servia in 2016, Conor Daly in 2015, Jacques Villeneuve in 2014 and Katherine Legge in 2013).
NBC Sports understands a third IndyCar for SPM could run a handful of races next season (three to five a possible range), but would likely be dictated by crew and engine availability.
SPM has traditionally run a four-car program in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series, although that program dipped to two full-time cars only starting at Road America this year. SPM looks to reassert itself as the dominant force in that series, in the midst of a three-year title losing drought after more or less controlling the title most years between 2004 and 2013.
These seats are still yet to be finalized/revealed:
Andretti Autosport (car four)
Chip Ganassi Racing (car four)
A.J. Foyt Enterprises (cars one and two)
Ed Carpenter Racing (car one, and road/street races in car two)
Antonio Felix da Costa has become the latest driver to sign up for the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, linking back up with Carlin for next month’s Formula 3 event.
Da Costa has contested the Macau race three times before, winning on his most recent appearance in 2012 with the Carlin team against a field that included current Formula 1 drivers Carlos Sainz Jr., Pascal Wehrlein and Felipe Nasr.
Since winning at Macau, da Costa has raced in Formula Renault 3.5, DTM and Formula E, the latter becoming his priority for the 2017 season with Andretti.
Da Costa will return to his roots on the November 20 weekend, joining Carlin’s line-up for the race that comes one week after the next Formula E round in Marrakech, Morocco.
“Yes it’s Macau and it’s happening. I will be back to Macau F3 GP with Carlin!” da Costa wrote on his Facebook page.
“Macau is a special place, it’s just pure driving. There is no special aim as such as going back for me, I’m doing it for the love of the sport, so when I got the call from Trevor [Carlin] I couldn’t say no.
“There will also be a few Macau winners going back as well as a lot of talented young guys so it will be a fun weekend. Thanks to BMW Motorsport for supporting my Macau comeback.”
Da Costa will be joined in the field by fellow Formula E racer Felix Rosenqvist, who is chasing an unprecedented third straight Macau victory.