DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch raised a lot of eyebrows when he said early during last Sunday’s front row qualifying for the Daytona 500 that there might be a conspiracy theory to put both Austin Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the pole and outside pole.
Busch was kind of half-right in the sense that Dillon won the pole. And when Earnhardt rallied to win the actual race Sunday night, there’s the potential that conspiracy theories could light up again.
Forget it, said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt earned his win in the Great American Race, pure and simple, fair and square, by effort not divine intervention – or gift – from the NASCAR gods.
“This particular race, there’s no drama, there’s no feeling that I don’t feel like anyone can legitimately have that there was some voodoo magic reason why he won. He earned it in every sense,” Keselowski said.
Even though he was disappointed not being able to get past Earnhardt to win the race himself, Keselowski couldn’t have been happier for his friend.
“He did a great job,” Keselowski said when asked by MotorSportsTalk. “If there’s ever a guy who’s due, it’s a guy who’s finished second three out of the last four years. That’s really saying something.
“He’s been right there, he’s knocked on the door, he runs restrictor plate races as an elite driver, probably in the top three, hadn’t got the win he probably deserved a couple times from a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due and today was his day. I’m happy for him.”
Keselowski probably feels a greater affinity for Earnhardt winning than most other competitors. Earnhardt provided Keselowski his big break to drive the No. 88 for the Earnhardt-owned JR Motorsports’ team in the Nationwide Series in 2007, after Keselowski had lost his main ride midway through the season.
“Dale obviously gave me my big opportunity and is probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate, Joey Logano, and his spotter is my neighbor,” Keselowski said. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination there. It’s good for them. I’m happy for him.”
But when asked by MotorSportsTalk if he was happy for Earnhardt winning his first race in nearly two years and only his third race since the start of the 2007 season, Hamlin seemed to temporarily snap out of his funk.
“It’s big for a lot of reasons,” Hamlin said. “He’s going into the last year with his current crew chief. They’re going to start making Chase plans now early. It’ll be good for the race team. They’re very flexible going forward with what they can do and try.
“It’s very significant if any Earnhardt wins at Daytona,” he added. “You’re going to have a tough time getting around Earnhardt in a green-white-checker at Daytona, anyway. Obviously, it’s a very significant day for their family and it’s great for the race team.”
Seated next to Hamlin on the media center stage, Dillon also chimed in on his thoughts about Earnhardt.
“It’s awesome,” Dillon said. “Junior has been so supportive of me bringing back the 3. … I want to thank him and congratulate him. For me, he’s been a little bit of a bigger brother for me, so it’s kinda cool.”
But perhaps the best quote of the night came immediately after the race from Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who finished fourth in the race.
“Congrats to Junior, the world is right, Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500. That’s a sign the 2014 season is going to be a good one,” said Gordon, who finished fourth in the race.
In three years since the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires introduced its new Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the field size – and the level of top competition – has increased each season.
Kyle Kaiser is one of only two drivers who’ve been there in each of the 50 races in three years, Shelby Blackstock the other one, and is proof of what’s needed to grow into a Verizon IndyCar Series driver.
His maturation process from a crash-prone rookie to a calm, consistent and determined team leader at 21 years old, having moved from his hometown of Santa Clara, Calif. to Indianapolis, has been fascinating to watch at the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
That development paid dividends en route to securing this year’s title, which owed quite a bit both to timing and determination on his part along with a consistency each of his other title contenders lacked.
Having been there since the start of the new car period in 2015, Kaiser explained how much the competition has improved.
“That’s the crazy thing. It’s gotten higher year-on-year,” Kaiser told NBC Sports at Watkins Glen. “We have all these really strong guys coming from Europe. And we have some very strong drivers that returned, with Santi coming back after he almost won the championship last year. I think this year was a really good performance, because I wasn’t making the mistakes that cost me the title last year.”
He would know. Kaiser’s early race accidents in 2015 revealed a driver who was still a bit raw in his step up from Pro Mazda, with a notable shunt with Jack Harvey in Long Beach standing out for all the wrong reasons.
There were two podiums and sixth place in points, but Kaiser was in a clear “second tier” among drivers beyond the three primary title contenders – Harvey, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones – and more on par with fellow rookies RC Enerson and Max Chilton. All five have since made it to IndyCar for at least a handful of starts.
Kaiser had grown enough to uphold the mantle of team leader at Juncos Racing by year two in Indy Lights. Fostered by the people around him – Ricardo Juncos as team principal and engineers Peter Dempsey and Ernie Gonella, primarily – Kaiser built the confidence to where he could become a race winner in the series.
And as Indy Lights grew in 2016 where there were seven different winners, Kaiser joined that list. Domination at Phoenix followed by an emotional win on home soil at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a track he knows intimately from his junior years, were his first two triumphs. There were still mistakes but far fewer of them, and third in points was no less than he and the team deserved.
No one in 2016 had a truly standout season. Eventual champion Jones rallied through a rough summer stretch. Santiago Urrutia, up from winning the Pro Mazda title, looked a world beater on permanent road courses but struggled mightily on ovals, and also watched as his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team disintegrated around him. Enerson, expected to be a title contender, tired of myriad team and mechanical issues and left midseason before jumping into IndyCar. Zach Veach alternated boom-and-bust results in his return to the series. The same was true for Dean Stoneman and Felix Serralles, who won races but were highly inconsistent. Felix Rosenqvist won three races on a partial schedule and probably had the most natural talent in the field, but wasn’t there to properly contend.
It was there the signs of consistency could come good for Kaiser in the grand scheme of things, and along with Urrutia, they were likely equal co-favorites for this year’s championship. And with Urrutia only racing this year on a late deal with Belardi Auto Racing with SPM, Kaiser had the team consistency in his pocket too. Having known how Juncos operates both its Pro Mazda and Indy Lights programs, Kaiser knew the team wouldn’t lose focus.
“That guy knows how to handle pressure!” Kaiser said. “He can be everywhere and take care of so much stuff to be a great team owner. Any stress he may have had in the Pro Mazda program, I haven’t had to worry about any of that in the Indy Lights program all year.”
Such was the case. Whereas Kaiser had all the elements needed to succeed in his back pocket, his six-pack of rivals all hit rough patches at various points, and so 2017 followed a similar arc as 2016.
Urrutia took time to gel with Belardi and was almost out of the title by May. Despite an eventual rally from 11th to second, he couldn’t quite overcome the deficit.
Rookies Colton Herta, Nico Jamin, Matheus Leist and Aaron Telitz all won races, but all made their fair share of rookie mistakes, bore the brunt of reliability issues or suffered from both. Zachary Claman DeMelo added a variable as an improved sophomore – a la Kaiser last year, although after bailing from Juncos and switching to Carlin – and featured enough speed and consistency worth taking notice of. Quite by contrast, Claman DeMelo’s fellow sophomore teammate at Carlin, Neil Alberico, watched his title hopes fade away by the end of May after a strong start.
Kaiser drove smart all season with the exception of Mid-Ohio, then rallied at Gateway with an ultimate statement drive to put his grasp on the title. He avoided potential pitfalls as Claman DeMelo and Jamin both spun right near him, put a deep pass on Urrutia’s outside into Turns 1 and 2 that left the Uruguayan surprised, then finished fourth to score enough points where he didn’t need any result at Watkins Glen to lock down the title.
“I wanted to get on the podium but knowing where I was, being fourth with three laps to go, I just had to bring it home,” Kaiser reflected. “That restart, I almost put it in the wall but I didn’t – I saved it! That was a season saving catch, for sure.”
It wasn’t the flashiest of seasons, but it didn’t need to be. Considering how far Kaiser has come over a four-year period, the fact it was quiet but solid all throughout the year spoke volumes of the maturation needed to become a respectable IndyCar driver. He’ll do so for at least three races courtesy of the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship.
Consider he has a high level of experience he already has going into IndyCar is the four years in the ladder, a similar number to a Pigot or James Hinchcliffe, for instance. He’s won once each on an oval, street course and road course. He’s become solidified in Indianapolis, where he now calls home.
And he only said he got nervous once it came to delivering his championship acceptance speech at the banquet in Watkins Glen, so that’s a sign of his steely resolve in the cockpit.
But Kaiser’s appreciation for the team that’s built him into a champion really said more than his results.
“I’ve been with the team four years now,” he said in his championship speech. “You guys saw my potential… you’re always honest with me, and your driver development program has made me the driver I am today.
“Your love for the sport and unrelenting desire to win has brought you so much success.”
With both Kaiser and Juncos Racing poised to graduate into IndyCar on a more substantive basis in 2018 – together or not – the result of this year’s Indy Lights championship is deserved fruit for both their labor.
A year after making a transition from Audi’s LMP1 program to Porsche’s in the FIA World Endurance Championship, Andre Lotterer will be on the move again to the FIA Formula E Championship for season four from 2017 to 2018 with the Techeetah team.
The three-time winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans winner is also a champion in the FIA WEC (2012), Super Formula (2011) and Super GT (2006, 2009); the 35-year-old German is one of the more successful open-wheel and sports car drivers of the generation and now takes up his latest challenge as the Formula E series continues to grow in driver talent. He’s made both one IndyCar (2002, Mexico City with Dale Coyne Racing) and Formula 1 (2014, Belgium with Caterham) start apiece.
Techeetah will welcome Lotterer in as it seeks a year of stability in its driver lineup following a roller coaster season three. Lotterer joins Jean-Eric Vergne next year. Vergne had either Ma Qing Hua, Esteban Gutierrez or Stephane Sarrazin in the second car this past year.
“I am honored and proud to join Techeetah to make my Formula E debut,” Lotterer said. “Formula E has been the most exciting motor racing series in recent years. Techeetah made a very big impression last season beating a number of manufacturer teams, and I am looking forward to working with JEV and everyone in Techeetah to start this new chapter in my racing career.”
“Jean-Eric Vergne and Andre Lotterer will form one of the strongest driver line ups in Formula E. I’m sure our two drivers will push each other to new levels of performance. Andre’s track record and experience with some of motorsport’s most significant factory teams, brings immense value as we push our own development in both the medium and long-term,” added Ivan Yim, Techeetah managing director.
“With only three test days available to us as a private team, we’ll be looking to Andre to adapt quickly to the format and car. The intent is clear; we’re putting a quick driver together with the team’s proven Renault Sport powertrain. With the all-new season 5 car on the horizon, we are confident that season 4 will assist Andre in being well prepared along with Jean-Eric to mount a solid challenge for the Championship.”
Pierre Gasly’s full-time future in Formula 1 will get determined after he first gets a chance to prove himself in a handful of races this year with Scuderia Toro Rosso.
The team has announced Tuesday morning he’ll stand in for Danii Kvyat for the “next Grands Prix,” and will make his race debut at this week’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
Gasly won last year’s GP2 championship (series now known as Formula 2) and has stayed race fresh this year racing in Japan’s Super Formula, following a similar pattern as Stoffel Vandoorne did last year before moving into a McLaren Honda race seat this season. As that series finale is the same weekend as the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Gasly will be unavailable for Toro Rosso there.
“Scuderia Toro Rosso was established by Red Bull to bring youngsters from its Junior Programme into Formula 1 and that’s what we are doing by giving Pierre this chance,” said Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost.
“He is the next in line at Red Bull for this opportunity and he has shown that he deserves it, having taken the 2016 GP2 title and this year being very competitive in the Super Formula series in Japan. He really has a valid chance of winning the title, as he is only half a point behind the leader.
“The driver switch gives us an opportunity to make a more informed decision regarding our 2018 driver choices. For a variety of reasons, some of them due to technical problems, but others being mistakes of his own making, Daniil Kvyat has not really shown his true potential so far this year, which is why we are standing him down for the next races. This will give us the opportunity to evaluate Pierre on track during a proper race weekend.”
Gasly will seek to deliver in his opportunity, paired up alongside Carlos Sainz Jr. in Sainz’s final races with Toro Rosso this year before he’s off to Renault in 2018. Thus far, Sainz outscored Kvyat 36 to 4 this season.
“I would like to thank everyone who has helped me get this chance in my motor racing career and specifically, Red Bull, Dr. Helmut Marko and Scuderia Toro Rosso…this is a great opportunity for me,” Gasly said.
“I feel as ready as I can be, having had to be prepared for anything in my role as Red Bull Racing’s third driver this year. I will do my best to perform well with Scuderia Toro Rosso during these coming races.”
Ken Block’s latest adventure with his 1965 Ford Mustang ‘Hoonicorn’ RTR didn’t involve a traditional type of course. It did, however, include the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
The release and details about “Climbkhana” presented by Toyo Tires for the film co-directed by veteran creative man, photographer and Porsche enthusiast Jeff Zwart is below.
Climbkhana presented by Toyo Tires, is the next generation of Ken Block’s wildly successful and award winning Gymkhana series of viral videos. The all-new concept is a hybrid of the driving showcased in the previous films, blended with a rally-road style attack on unique roads around the world. To kick off this new series, Ken Block chose what is arguably one of the most famous roads out there: The Pikes Peak Highway outside Colorado Springs, CO.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the most well known hill climb in the world, Billed as America’s second oldest, continually running race (the Indianapolis 500 is first), it’s also one of the first places Block ever raced in his career.
“When I was young, I caught the The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb on TV once or twice,” said Block. “Even as a kid I remember dreaming about racing there some day because it looked so epic. Eventually I did, back in 2005, but it was in a Group N rally car which didn’t have much power up in that high and thin air! It was an underwhelming experience because of the horsepower issue, but I loved the road and mountain – and I had always wanted to go back and do it right. So, to drive it like I get to drive in my Gymkhana videos – and do it in the Hoonicorn with 1,400 horsepower – well, that truly is a dream come true!”
For Block, filming Climbkhana at Pikes Peak was a unique opportunity. While the road closes once a year for the Hill Climb, no one has ever been given the access to turn the landmark location into a playground. For production duties, Block once again brought his long-time friend and business partner at Hoonigan, Brian Scotto, to direct, but they also added a new face to the Hoonigan Media Machine formula: Eight-time Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Champion and Radical Media Director Jeff Zwart.
“I have raced at Pikes Peak for 16 years and through the years I thought I had seen everything, but to witness Ken’s skills on basically my home mountain and get to direct him at the same time, it was truly something amazing,” explains Jeff Zwart, Climbkhana’s co-director. “Nothing but respect for him and his whole team, both on the racing side and production side!”
To tackle the extreme elevation gains experienced along the way up Pikes Peak, Block knew that he needed more horsepower for his 1965 Ford Mustang Hoonicorn RTR. So, Hoonicorn V2 was born. A 1,400 horsepower, twin-turbo, methanol-fueled machine that lights up its sticky Toyo Proxes R888R tires in every corner and properly updates the infamous build made famous in Gymkhana SEVEN, Wild in the Streets Los Angeles. Unfortunately, extreme engine builds and altitudes can prove challenging. Block and his crew experienced multiple production setbacks, having to go to the mountain on three separate occasions over 12 months due to both weather and development issues to be able to finish the film.
“This car is insane,” said Block. “I feel it genuinely wants to kill me! Before we added the twin turbos, it was the most fun car I’ve ever driven. Now it’s still quite fun to drive, but it melts tires ridiculously quick. To have this thing be such a beast and then take it to this very dangerous mountain, well, I thought I’d maybe finally taken on a project that might be too much for me to handle. This is the most powerful AWD-type car in the world to be driven this way, so I’m genuinely glad I didn’t die making this video!”
Toyo Proxes R888R tires deliver the enhanced grip and stability Block needs when maneuvering the 1,400-horsepower Hoonicorn V2 around the famous curves of Pikes Peak. Learn more about the Proxes R888R DOT competition tire and find a dealer at toyotires.com/tires/competition-tires.
The film was produced by Hoonigan Media Machine and premiered last night at The Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. It is presented by Toyo Tires, Ford and Pennzoil. To watch it now, click the link below.