Pro Mazda start at NOLA. Photo: Pro Mazda Championship

MRTI: Cooper Tires Winterfest Update; Garcia signs with SPM

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There was racing other than NASCAR in Daytona this weekend, hard as that is to believe.

The North American open-wheel season got underway with the Cooper Tires Winterfest at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans on Friday and Saturday, featuring all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder: the Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 series.

In the five combined Pro Mazda and USF2000 races, five drivers from five different teams won. It’s a far cry from the last two Winterfests, where only the USF2000 series ran and the races were dominated by drivers from the Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teams.

Spencer Pigot (Juncos Racing, Friday) and Garett Grist (Andretti Autosport, Saturday) captured the first two Pro Mazda race wins. Pigot leads the points standings by 10 over Grist, heading to the second set of two days at Barber Motorsports Park on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The USF2000 series saw three different winners in as many races, which is two more teams than had won the Winterfest the last two years.

Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport, Friday) and RC Enerson (Team E, Saturday) and Clark Toppe (JDC Motorsports, Saturday) took the three USF2000 race wins. Enerson leads Cape’s Jake Eidson by six, 70-64, heading to Barber.

Cape swept each of the last two six-race Winterfests in 2012 and 2013, both times with one driver taking five of six races. Pigot (2012) and Neil Alberico (2013) were those two, although the eventual USF2000 regular season champions, Matty Brabham (2012) and Scott Hargrove (2013) took the sixth.

In the two days of Indy Lights testing at NOLA, 2013 runner-up Gabby Chaves (Belardi Auto Racing) led Andretti Autosport’s Brabham. Luiz Razia was third for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. They head to Barber as well ahead of tomorrow.

Additionally on the Indy Lights front, and the SPM front, the team has signed veteran Juan Pablo Garcia as its second confirmed driver, besides Englishman  Jack Harvey.

The Mexican has made 30 series starts since 2009, with only three career top-five finishes (fourth at St. Petersburg, fifth at Milwaukee and Toronto all in 2013). He made strides in 2013, only his second full season in the championship.

A switch to the front-line Schmidt equipment should provide the 25-year-old Garcia his best chance at improving those statistics, and continuity. He’s competed with Team Moore Racing, Belardi Auto Racing, Jeffrey Mark Motorsport, Jensen Motorsport, HVM Racing, and Michael Crawford Motorsports in his Indy Lights career.

“It’s a very prestigious team in the Indy Lights series, and they have always demonstrated that all their cars are always vying for podiums, victories and leading races, and every year they win a championship,” Garcia said in a release. “They have good drivers, a good team of engineering and crew and, of course, great cars. It’s really hard to achieve that every single year.”

Besides the two confirmed, Razia and Juan Piedrahita have tested for SPM this winter, and are likely to be nominated to official race seats soon.

Justin Wilson honored with corner name at Snetterton

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British circuit Snetterton has renamed one of its corners in honor of Justin Wilson.

Wilson was killed last August after being struck by debris in a Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono, sustaining severe head injuries.

The British driver spent much of his junior career racing at tracks around the UK, including Snetterton.

Wilson won the inaugural Formula Palmer Audi title back in 1998, a series run by Snetterton owner and ex-Formula 1 driver Jonathan Palmer, the track being part of his MotorSport Vision group.

Palmer worked with Wilson to help him get onto the F1 grid, and the two maintained a close friendship.

On Monday, officials at Snetterton announced that the Montreal hairpin has now been renamed the Wilson hairpin. A special corner board will be placed on the run towards the Wilson hairpin featuring his name and his iconic helmet design.

“Justin Wilson, the champion of my inaugural Formula Palmer Audi championship, thoroughly deserved the support which that success brought him, and it was enormously satisfying to watch him make the best possible use of every opportunity he had through to F1 and IndyCar racing,” Palmer said.

“But not only was Justin an outstanding racing driver, he was also the epitome of a true sportsman, earning universal respect and admiration.

“He leaves a lasting legacy that we will cherish and perpetuate, with the naming of Wilson corner at Snetterton an important part of that.”

Justin’s younger brother, Stefan, who raced at this year’s Indianapolis 500, added: “This is such an incredible gesture by MSV and I know Justin would be very honoured and humbled to learn that he has a corner here at Snetterton named after him.

“Snetterton has a special place in our memories as our dad raced here back in the 1960s and he would tell us stories of racing down the old Norwich straight. Plus, Justin and I raced here many times in our own careers.”

The first event to take place at Snetterton using the Wilson hairpin will be this weekend’s British Touring Car Championship round. All three races will take place on Sunday – what would have been Wilson’s 38th birthday.

Tony George is back, as Hulman & Co. Chairman of the Board

7 Aug 1999: President of IRL Tony George with Mary Hullman George looks on during the Brickyard 400, part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Mari Hulman George and Tony George in 1999. Photo: Getty Images
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Tony George’s new title was made public during Sunday’s Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 (for all intents and purposes, the Brickyard 400) before he gave the command to start engines.

That title is Chairman of the Board of Hulman & Co., which is the parent company of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He replaces Mari Hulman George, his mother, in the role. He’d been voted out of his leadership positions in 2009 before rejoining the board in 2013.

The change actually occurred in March, but wasn’t made public until Sunday – as ESPN.com’s John Oreovicz writes, it actually took a bit of attention off a less than scintillating Brickyard 400 on track.

NBCSN contributor Robin Miller spoke to Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Co., in a RACER.com post to explain what Tony George’s role will be.

“This has no effect on management, policies or strategies. The board has worked hard the past two years to have a clear strategy and that isn’t changing,” Miles told Miller, who also confirmed Mari Hulman George’s new designation of Chairman Emeritus.

Tony George has remained an ever-present presence in North American open-wheel racing for most of the last 25 years.

His dissatisfaction over the direction CART was going led, eventually, to the creation of the Indy Racing League (now IndyCar) in 1994 before its race debut in 1996. That 1994 year was the same year that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (then Winston Cup) ran its first Brickyard 400.

While IndyCar has spent the 20 years since the fractious IRL/CART split recovering (a long-form chronicle of May 26, 1996 is linked here) and is on better ground now than it was several years ago, George’s contributions and enhancements to both IMS and racing safety in general cannot be overlooked.

His work to get the first SAFER barrier installed at IMS would eventually lead that to becoming the industry standard on ovals nationwide.

George was also a team owner with Vision Racing (ran through 2009), and has remained a semi-visible presence with stepson Ed Carpenter Racing since that team first took the grid in 2012.

Kyle Busch open to Indy 500, but “wouldn’t put too good a chance” on it

during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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Following his dominant display this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he swept both poles and both wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Xfinity Series, Kyle Busch doesn’t have much left to conquer at the hallowed “Brickyard.”

Except, maybe, we can dream, one day, of him running that 500-miler around IMS in May.

His brother, Kurt, did it to national acclaim and a heck of a lot of headlines in 2014 – Kurt Busch finished sixth and was that year’s Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year for Andretti Autosport before jetting to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.

But while Kyle Busch’s name has been brought up in rumors about running the Indianapolis 500 before, he didn’t seem entirely interested in running the ‘500 just because his brother did.

“Well, I won’t be following in his footsteps.  I’ll be doing my own footsteps,” Kyle Busch told reporters during his post-victory press conference.

“It certainly may open up some avenues.  I’m not sure.  But there’s some people out there that have expressed some interest to me, so we’ll see where things kind of go.

“But obviously my focus is on the Sprint Cup Series and what I’m doing here, and being able to win races with M&M’s and Skittles, Interstate Batteries and NOS Energy Drink on the XFINITY side, too.

“So I’m having fun with what I’m doing right now, and we’ll see if something is able to line up then there’s a possibility, but I probably wouldn’t put too good a chances on that.”

In the interim, while Busch isn’t extrapolating beyond his NASCAR dominance, he’s right in that he isn’t following in brother Kurt’s footsteps.

Kurt’s stretched his legs with runs in IndyCar, a Champ Car test, a GRAND-AM Daytona Prototype, an NHRA Pro Stock car and an Australian V8 Supercar test over his career.

In his career, Kyle Busch has stuck almost exclusively to NASCAR – and made a living of cleaning up the competition in the process.

Both are among the most talented drivers of their generation, and since Kurt Busch did so well in his maiden Indianapolis 500 bow, we can only dream how well Kyle Busch could do if the stars aligned to ever make it happen.

Off The Grid: Montreal preview (premieres 7/30 on NBCSN)

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The Canadian Grand Prix has become one of Formula 1’s favorite events over the years, playing host to a bumper crowd at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve year after year.

As a result, it made perfect sense for Off The Grid to visit Montreal for the second episode of the year, following the season premiere in Shanghai.

NBCSN’s Will Buxton and Jason Swales took some time over the Canadian Grand Prix weekend to go behind the scenes of the race and lift the lid on life inside the F1 paddock.

In this episode, OTG’s dynamic duo try their hand at ice hockey with the Montreal Canadiens, and are joined by Valtteri Bottas and Marcus Ericsson – both accomplished on the ice as well as on-track.

Will and Jason also take a river rapids boat tour with Manor drivers Rio Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein, get a behind-the-scenes tour of McLaren with Fernando Alonso, and even catch up with Patriots QB Tom Brady who attended the race.

Off The Grid: Montreal premieres on NBCSN at 9:30am ET on Saturday 7/30 following qualifying for the German Grand Prix, and re-airs at 3:30pm ET.

Check out a full preview of the episode in the above video.