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Q&A with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, Part 1

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With testing and occasional race duties coming up this NASCAR Sprint Cup season for Michael Waltrip Racing, Jeff Burton is still very much involved in the competition side of the sport.

But this year will also see Burton – universally respected and known among fans and media as “The Mayor” of the Sprint Cup garage – contribute to NBCSN’s new “NASCAR AMERICA” daily show that debuts on Monday at 5 p.m. ET.

Come 2015, he’ll move into a full-time analyst role with NBC Sports Group as it officially begins coverage of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing.

Recently, MotorSportsTalk had the privilege of talking with him about a variety of topics. Today, you’ll see his thoughts on transitioning into the broadcast booth, and tomorrow, you’ll read about his role with MWR and his insights on the upcoming season – which starts Sunday with the Daytona 500.

What sort of impact did the NBC position have on you pulling back to part-time driving? Or had the pulling back part been on your mind before it opened up?

“The NBC thing certainly moved the ball. I knew 2014 was going to be my last full year. I had made up my mind on that. And the timing of NBC – that was going to be real convenient. We had a lot of conversations about it and it felt like that was going to work out. But then the opportunity to do [NASCAR AMERICA], being involved with that and being able to actually spend the time I need to spend – all that felt right to me.

“It just felt like the timing was right and I’ll be honest – and I’m not saying this because I’m talking to [an NBCSports.com writer] – the opportunity to work with NBC was very appealing to me. The reason I say that is I watch NBC Sports and I watch the way they cover sports, and I like it. It feels right to me. It feels very professional. It fits who I am…It’s not about self-promoting, it’s about what’s going on and that fits me. And that pushed me to make a decision that I wasn’t sure I was ready to make [laughs]! It became a lot easier to make it.”

How important is it to have the support of a company like NBC Sports as you transition from driving to the broadcast booth?

“We’re doing it first class and we’re doing it right. That’s been my belief forever – if you put an effort in to do it right, then there’s the opportunity for it to come out right. You go into it, put a half-hearted effort into it, and you can pretty sure you’re gonna get a half-hearted result. Sitting down with [NBC Sports/NBCSN executive producer] Sam Flood and [NBC Sports Group vice president of NASCAR production] Jeff Behnke and really understand how they wanted to cover the sport, I became very excited about it and was very energized and enthusiastic.

“And then the people they’ve gone out and gotten – I mean, going in with [Sprint Cup crew chief] Steve Letarte, that’s a big deal. He’s going to be unbelievably good. And [play-by-play announcer] Rick Allen – I mean, we’re 18 months away from doing our first [race] broadcast, but they knew who they wanted and they got ‘em. That shows you the kind of company they are: “This is what we want. We’re gonna go make it happen.”

“They’ve could’ve easily said, ‘Well, let’s just see what happens.’ But they went and said, ‘Hey, let’s jump on it now,’ and by doing that, they put something in Steve Letarte’s head…It just goes to show, if you’re dedicated and committed and you go after it, you can make good stuff happen. That’s the way I view it. They went head-first into this to get the best team they could and hopefully, we live up to it. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But they got all their No. 1 draft picks.”

A common refrain we’ve heard involving NASCAR in recent years is that the younger fans are leaving it behind. How do you, Rick and Steve intend to convey the excitement of the sport to those fans and have them maybe take another look?

“First of all, there are so many stories in the sport: We’re not gonna have to create stories. What we need to do is telling more stories, more about what’s going on and not just about the Top 5 guys running [in a race]. We need to talk about technology. We need to talk about the things going on in the car with the drivers in specific ways. We need to get creative in how we not only talk about it, but how we allow viewers to visually understand it from a technology standpoint, strategy standpoint, and driver’s standpoint. All those things create opportunities.

“I believe that young people still like cars. I’m around them all the time, as my son races and my daughter just turned 18 years old. She has a lot of friends that are buying their first cars and just started driving, and my son’s around kids that race. Kids love cars. Kids love to drive. They still do. Is it different? Yeah. It used to be we’d take the car, change the engine in it, and that’s not going on [as much] today, but they still love to drive and still love cars. We’ve gotta get them back to being excited about racing!

“We can do that. There’s a lot of ways to do that. There’s nothing about racing that kids don’t like. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s loud, it’s in your face, it’s action. We just need to find a better way to present it to them. I’m confident we can do this. But it’s going to take some work. If we try to do it the way everybody else has done it, we’re gonna get the same result and we need to go into this looking for better results.”

(NOTE: The following is part of the answer to the previous question, but it wound up focusing on the competitive drive of the on-air team. We think it’s a good look into Jeff’s personality, so we’ve kept it in. – MST)

“In regards to the competition, nothing personal, but we intend to be the best. NBC intends to cover racing better than everybody else. It’s a competition. And I’ve been in competition my whole life. Rick Allen’s been a competitor [three-time All-American decathlete, University of Nebraska]. Steve Letarte’s been a competitor. We’re competitive people! And Sam Flood, too [college hockey captain]. We want to be the best. We want to take it to ’em – nothing personal, but we want to take it to ‘em. And that’s what we intend to do.”

What would be a sign of success to you in this role?

“When fans say to me, ‘I understand more today that I ever have. Racing is more fun to watch. This is fun. I know more about the sport than I used to know. I understand the rules more, I understand the process more.’ That’s a success. When I run into fans – it’s not about promoting me. It’s about telling the story of the sport. I don’t want people walking up to me, telling me how great I am.

“I want to them to walk up to me and say, ‘This sport is awesome.’ Because if they do that, then we’re doing our job…We have a great sport. We’ve got to get some energy back into it. We’ve gotta get people understanding how great it is. And everybody’s trying. It’s not like we’re the ones going to be trying. But we’re going to try and bring a fresh approach to it, a new approach to it.”

Pagenaud’s title week: New York, Star Wars, then another race car

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Ahead of this week’s Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta where he’ll compete in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, Simon Pagenaud has made it through the first wave of media after winning the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

As you can see above, his round of media included a visit on NASCAR AMERICA on NBCSN. He spoke to Krista Voda about the year he just completed with Team Penske.

Pagenaud also posted a number of tweets about his week and the other places he visited:

Pagenaud and Team Penske celebrated back at Charlotte headquarters:

And then there was this in Sonoma, which was shot before the weekend of title clinching itself but may have given Pagenaud the “force” to succeed.

Pagenaud made a brief co-hosting appearance on “The Star Wars Show” presented by Verizon – his portion starts on camera at 5:40 in the 8-plus minute clip, with the IndyCar portion starting at 5:12 or so.

Photo: LAT Photo USA
Photo: LAT Photo USA

Besides Pagenaud, Gabby Chaves and Zach Veach are in the video, since both were driving the IndyCar two-seaters at Sonoma.

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NHRA: Riding almost 200 mph is the Arana family business

Hector Arana Jr. is a chip off the old block when it comes to racing motorcycles in the NHRA.
(Photos courtesy Geiger Global Media and NHRA)
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Some men follow in their father’s footsteps.

Hector Arana Jr., however, followed in his father’s tire tracks.

That’s as a full-time competitor in the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle ranks.

Hector Arana – Junior’s father – won the 2009 PSM championship and both have been consistent entrants in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, as well as racing down dragstrips from New Jersey to California at nearly 200 mph.

The senior Arana is in his eighth straight Countdown, while his son is in his sixth straight playoff. As the NHRA circuit moves into Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa., this weekend for the Dodge Nationals, father and son are both looking to making some significant jump upward in the standings.

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Hector Arana Jr.
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Hector Arana

Hector Jr., 27, is seventh in the standings, 145 points behind points leader and defending series champion Andrew Hines. The younger Arana has finished in the top five in each of the last four Countdowns: fourth in both 2012 and 2013, third in 2014 and fifth in 2015.

The elder Arana, who turned 58 on Sept. 17, is right behind his son in the point standings, in eighth place, 153 points behind Hines.

Son leads father in overall wins on the two-wheel circuit, 11 to seven. But they’re also each other’s biggest cheerleaders and work on each other’s bikes to make them as quick and fast as they possibly can be.

Both are big fans of Maple Grove and are looking forward to returning there this weekend.

Hector Arana
Hector Arana

“It’s important for both of us to do well in the playoffs,” father Hector said in a media release. “I’m liking our chances. Both bikes are running well and we feel like we have the ability to win any of the races we enter.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I don’t think it’s ever been tougher than it is right now in this class, but that makes it more challenging and more satisfying when you do well. Hopefully this weekend is a big one for us.”

Not only does Hector Jr. get his racing genes from his father, he also shares in the Arana family patriarch’s optimism about this weekend.

“If weather conditions are just right, we could see national records this weekend,” said the younger Arana, who won at Reading in 2011. “We would really like to be in the mix to run those kinds of numbers. We have the power to do it; we just need to put it all together the right way.

“We’ve had a decent year and even got to the final round at Indy earlier this month but we want more. Reading would be a great place to win. I know I’d be happy to get it done.”

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IMSA Prototype title battle pits AXR teammates against each other

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype standings couldn’t be tighter heading into Saturday’s season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

Dane Cameron and Eric Curran currently lead the standings in their No. 31 Whelen/Team Fox Corvette DP, holding a razor-thin 286 to 285 point lead over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP.

“It will certainly be business as usual – that’s the best way to put it, for sure,” Cameron said in the team’s advance release. “We can’t afford to race any differently or be conservative.

“We need to be on attack to try to win the championship. We’re going to be putting it all on the line to try to get this championship. We’re taking on our teammates – the two-time defending champions – and you can’t leave any stone unturned.

“In the big picture, it’s a great accomplishment for the whole Action Express Racing organization to have both cars first and second in the points. That’s something to be really proud of, two great seasons from our race cars.”

Whichever team accumulates more points in Saturday’s race will be the 2016 Prototype champion. And besides the one-point difference, things have been tight in other ways, as well.

In the last IMSA race for Prototypes, Sept. 17 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Cameron and Curran finished second, with Barbosa and Fittipaldi right behind in third.

What’s more, prior to that the Action Express pairs have recorded three consecutive one-two finishes: Cameron/Curran and Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 at both Road America (Aug. 7) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (July 10), while Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 ahead of Cameron/Curran at Watkins Glen International (July 3).

“We had a great test in Atlanta,” said Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson.  “There were other Corvettes that we ran against so we were able to evaluate our cars against others that we’re going to be racing this weekend.

“We ran over 700 miles per car, over the two days, and we made a lot of long runs. We really feel a lot of confidence and we’re excited about the race coming up at Road Atlanta.”

As if things weren’t interesting enough, Cameron and Curran are pulling out all stops by adding brand new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud to their team for the 10-hour endurance race.

Pagenaud raced with Cameron and Curran (and Johnny Adam) in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the team finishing sixth in class.

Pagenaud competed full-time in the American Le Mans Series from 2008 to 2010, earning eight wins in that period and the 2010 series title, before moving full-time to the IndyCar circuit.

In this race last year, Barbosa and Fittipaldi, along with another IndyCar driver, Sebastien Bourdais, captured the championship, while Cameron, Curran and Max Papis finished third.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi have their own ringer of sorts, Filipe Albuquerque, who was part of their team that wound up with respective fourth place finishes in each of the first two races of this season: Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

“Doing Petit Le Mans with three drivers is almost the same as doing it with two drivers at the Glen, maybe a little bit longer,” Fittipaldi said. “It’s pretty straight forward and we won’t need to make any adjustments.

“In the series you have to be prepared no matter what, and ‘be on’ all the time.  We only have 10 races and it doesn’t matter if it’s Daytona or Sebring or Road Atlanta — you just have to be on it all the time.”

Added Barbosa, “Everything in the race really comes down to preparation in the shop. Our race cars are very strong and very reliable and we can push the car all the time for the whole 10 hours.

“This is going to be the last race for this Corvette Prototype, so hopefully we’ll be able to give it a last win and retire the car in the best possible way.”

Albuquerque this season has also earned two wins in the LMP2 class of the WEC (Six Hours of Silverstone and Six Hours of Mexico), along with two other runner-up finishes (Six Hours of Nurburgring and Circuit Of The Americas).

In addition to going for their overall Prototype championship, Barbosa/Fittipaldi are also in the hunt for their third consecutive Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup title, a four-race competition based upon overall outcomes at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta.

Barbosa/Fittipaldi have earned 35 points to lead the competition, with Cameron/Curran a close third with 29 points.

“Last year, we were in a pretty good championship battle with our teammates in the No. 5 car, as well as the Wayne Taylor car,” Curran said. “It really came down to the wire last year at Petit Le Mans, on basically who finished ahead of the others was going to win the championship – and we came really close.

“We ended up third last year, but only a few points behind our teammates. It’s even closer this year. We’re one point ahead, but anything can happen. All the guys on the team have been great. Our pit stops have been spot on, the performance of the car has been phenomenal and my teammate Dane Cameron has been top-notch.

“We’re closer to the championship than a year ago and it’s an amazing feeling to be so close.  The pressure is on now.  It would be huge for us to win a championship in the top class of the IMSA series.”

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Dragon Racing loses Vergne penalty appeal from London

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 2: In this handout image supplied by Formula E, Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01 during the London Formula E race on July 2, 2016 in Battersea Park, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Andrew Ferraro/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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Dragon Racing’s appeal following Jean-Eric Vergne’s post-race time penalties at the season finale of the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship has been lost. Dragon was hoping to finish ahead of DS Virgin Racing for third in the team’s championship.

A decision was released today by the FIA International Court of Appeal, which heard the appeal on Friday, Sept. 16, which called the appeal “inadmissable.” Dragon appealed the penalties on July 6.

Vergne was assessed two post-race time penalties – 50 seconds for hitting 0 percent battery life on the final lap, and an additional second when leaving the pit lane. The first penalty dropped him from third on the road down to seventh, with an additional position lost on the second penalty.

Nonetheless, even though Dragon’s pair of Jerome d’Ambrosio and Loic Duval were promoted up to third and fourth in the London race at Battersea Park, Vergne was still classified eighth in the finale. That four-point net was enough to ensure DS Virgin finished one point ahead of Dragon for third place.

Vergne has since shifted from DS Virgin to Techeetah Formula E for season three. The new season kicks off Oct. 9 in Hong Kong.