56th Daytona 500

Daytona 500 update: Rain has stopped, track expected to be dry by 8:30 p.m. ET

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UPDATE: 7:15 p.m. ET: The rain has finally stopped at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR has its AirTitan dryers on the track and the media has been informed that it is hoped the track will be dry and race-ready by about 8:30 p.m. ET. That does not mean the race will resume at that time, but it’s a good indicator that the green flag could fall shortly thereafter. More updates to follow as they become available.

UPDATE: 5:25 p.m. ET: The tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service for Volusia County, Fla., including Daytona Beach and Daytona International Speedway, has expired (at 5:15 p.m. ET). As recently as 4:45 p.m. ET, quarter-sized hail was falling in the Orlando area, about 50 miles southwest of DIS. But it is expected that particular storm cell will head south towards the area of Edgewater, Fla. As for DIS, it is still raining lightly, but AirTitan dryers are attempting to dry the track along with more conventional jet dryers. Neither NASCAR nor DIS officials have indicated when — or if — racing may resume tonight.

UPDATE: 4:26 p.m. ET: The National Weather Service has extended the tornado warning for Volusia County until 5:15 p.m. ET. Current conditions at Daytona International Speedway are light rain with heavy overcast.

UPDATE, 3:12 p.m. ET: The National Weather Service has reissued a tornado warning for Volusia County, which includes Daytona International Speedway, until 4 p.m. ET. Track and NASCAR officials have informed fans that a warning has been issued.

UPDATE, 3:05 p.m. ET: A tornado warning was issued for Volusia County, which includes Daytona International Speedway, but it has expired at 2:45 pm. Weather radar continues to show a long front of thunderstorms — including several heavy cells — that stretch all across the top of Florida and past the Panhandle.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Daytona 500 has been red-flagged by rain.

The Great American Race was stopped after 38 laps of the 200-mile race. A large band of thunderstorms is moving through the area.

The delay could take a while as the storm band on weather radar stretches back almost across the entire state of Florida.

If racing resumes but returns later, the race would have to get through 101 laps — just one lap past halfway — to be deemed official by NASCAR officials.

The red comes after the second caution of the race past Lap 31, caused when Martin Truex Jr.’s engine let go on his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, and additional fluid was found down on the track.

In the opening 30 laps, five drivers exchanged the lead for five lead changes. Kyle Busch leads now; brother Kurt Busch has led the most laps thus far in his Stewart-Haas Racing debut.

Polesitter Austin Dillon led the opening lap before fading back, with Denny Hamlin, winner of the two other Speedweeks races thus far, then took over the point.

Kyle Larson hit the wall early, and spun later on, in what’s been a fraught Daytona 500 debut thus far.

After the first caution for Larson’s spin on Lap 23, the first round of pit stops featured drama for Matt Kenseth as he was spun into his pit stall. The two-time Daytona 500 champion was facing the wrong direction after what appeared to be contact from Trevor Bayne.

Meanwhile, Richard Petty’s driver, Marcos Ambrose, made very slight contact leaving his pit with of all people, Danica Patrick.

Kurt Busch took the lead off the pit sequence, and exchanged the lead with Hamlin and Paul Menard on the Lap 27 restart. Brother Kyle took over the point several laps later.

At the red, the top 10 order is Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Hamlin, Brian Vickers, Menard, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Dillon. Kurt Busch has dropped to 11th.

More updates to come.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.

‘Uncle Bobby’ Unser turns 83 today

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February 20 is quite a day for birthdays in the North American racing world. “The Captain,” Roger Penske, turns 80, and the Shaker Heights, Ohio native continues at the head of his incredibly successful race team and automotive group without so much as a sweat.

One of Penske’s longtime drivers has his birthday today, as well. Bobby Unser, or “Uncle Bobby,” turns 83.

A member of the famed Albuquerque family, Unser won three Indianapolis 500s (1968, 1975 and 1981) before moving into broadcasting after he retired, working with ABC at the ‘500 and throughout the IndyCar schedule. A legend on Pikes Peak as well, Unser has more than a dozen wins there.

As time has passed, Unser’s forthright, candid insights have really stood out in a time where fewer drivers have properly spoke their minds.

Last May at Indianapolis ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500, I had the opportunity to chat with “Uncle Bobby” about his life and career at the Speedway. A selection of those quotes are below:

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been coming every year since 1959. I saw the lights blinking on track and wonder what just happened!” he said. “This place has been going 100 years, and I’ve been a part of it for a long time.

“There’s been too many changes and I couldn’t remember them all in my head anyway. I don’t like the changes I’m seeing, but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I don’t know why I got into TV; I didn’t even go to high school. Yet I’m an engineer! Who’d ever thought Bobby Unser would do television? I ended up with a really good group at ABC. I didn’t think I could ever do it – but I did! I enjoyed myself.

“I lost a brother here. And I lost an uncle who was preparing to come here. My brother Jerry was killed here, and my uncle Joe was killed preparing to come here in a car. We were testing it in Colorado. We’ve lost two Unsers here – we don’t need a medal – but it hasn’t all been peaches and roses.

“The evolution of cars was easy. It was better to do it when we’re young! I’m not kidding. One of my heroes was Don Branson. He was a dirt track legend for sure, but he was good here too. He was the upper end of years, and I was gonna get his car. I didn’t know he’d get himself killed… we had it preplanned. But he was gonna quit driving and work for Goodyear as field manager for their racing tires. That was a big step for me.

“Don, I’m not gonna tell you I’m better than him. But he didn’t like the rear-engined cars. I’m young. He’s older. So I stepped into a rear-engined car and it feels fine to me! Some of them couldn’t hack it going from the roadster to rear-engined car. But it was easy for me, and for my brother Al. I think a lot of that is the experience you have, and the age.

“This is a tough place. Arguing about the cars now could be another deal. Most anyone could run the cars today… but I don’t want to go down that road and take up more of your time.

“Mario (Andretti) was one of my closest friends in those days. We’d fly together as I had a junky old airplane that barely made it, but it beat driving to races!

“Foyt’s Foyt. He’s a grouchy old fart, you know? But he’s a hell of a race driver. I wish the younger generation would have seen him when he was young… he was a fireplug. He was fast, he was a chassis man, and he understood engines. He was so good.

“It’s ’68, obviously (my favorite ‘500 win). You never know you can do it. There’s so many guys in this race that could be leading, two laps or 10 from the end the car quits. There’s so many of them like that. How many times are you’re leading Lap 150, and then ain’t gonna win it?

“You don’t know you can win it until checkered flag falls. The next one’s easier.”

Team Penske restores iconic ‘Blue Hilton’ Indy 500-winning transporter

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Photo courtesy of Team Penske
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Few teams have as great an appreciation for their own history as Team Penske, so it’s only fitting that on a day when Roger Penske turns 80, the team reflects on the first transporter that helped launch the team into the national stratosphere.

Penske’s first of 16 Indianapolis 500 victories was achieved in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and the transporter that carried that No. 66 Sunoco McLaren Offy was a customized 1972 International Fleetstar truck known in the racing circles as “The Blue Hilton.”

This transporter served Team Penske well, carrying both Indy cars and sports cars that dominated in Can-Am in the early 1970s with George Follmer and Donohue.

More than 8,000 man hours went into the restoration of this transporter, which was only found in 2015 after concerns it’d been scrapped. Penske Truck Leasing’s James Svaasand, Michael Klotz, and David Hall and Team Penske Historian Bernie King led the restoration and can thank Jerry Breon, a long-time Penske team member, who found the truck for sale.

“After we confirmed that it was, in fact, the Blue Hilton that was for sale, I called Brian Hard (president of Penske Truck Leasing) and we agreed that we had to find a way to bring her back to life,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said in a release. “This transporter was there when the foundation was laid for Team Penske and it is symbolic of the way in which we operate today.  Everyone at PTL did an unbelievable job restoring this vehicle.  I can’t wait for Roger to see it in person, as it is something he will cherish.”

The transporter will be on display at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.

You can read the full release here. A few photos of the transporter are below, courtesy of Team Penske:

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Testing confirmed, races not yet for Mikhail Aleshin in sports cars

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin will focus primarily on the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, but may still be busy with sports car commitments with SMP Racing.

His sponsor he has in IndyCar is working on a new non-hybrid LMP1 car for 2018, as SMP Racing’s technical partner BR Engineering is working with Dallara on that new chassis.

Aleshin said via a press release he’s already been busy working on the development of that car ahead of its planned introduction next season (more info here via Sportscar365 and Endurance-Info).

The new creation stems from the fact BR Engineering was not granted a place to continue with its BR01 LMP2 chassis, which raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship and also won the pole for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the ACO confirmed just four chassis constructors would continue in LMP2 in 2017 to coincide with new regulations (Onroak, Oreca, Riley Multimatic, Dallara). BR and other constructors were removed from the field as a result.

Intriguingly though, Aleshin was also listed as the nominated driver for SMP Racing’s Dallara P217 chassis for both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans doesn’t clash with an IndyCar weekend, while the ELMS and IndyCar have one clash, the weekend of August 26 when IndyCar races at Gateway Motorsports Park and ELMS is at Paul Ricard.

Aleshin may be active in a number of sports car races this year, as he has been off-and-on the last two years. But he doesn’t know his exact schedule yet.

“Well we’re working to produce our own car for 2018… and I’m one of the test or development drivers,” Aleshin told NBC Sports.

“I don’t know yet (Le Mans)… maybe I’ll be there. Well, it’s good to be a placeholder! But hopefully not for every event.

“For me the main thing this year is to concentrate on two things. Number one is IndyCar. But I have a very similar responsibility on taking care of our LMP1 project with SMP, as that will be very big.”