An urgent voice rings through the production control room inside NBC Sports Group’s International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn., and there’s a reason why it’s urgent.
The man of the hour has arrived. Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off claiming his second Daytona 500 victory the night before at Daytona International Speedway, is working through a whirlwind media blitz in New York City.
As part of that, he’s making time for a quick interview on the debut episode for NBCSN’s new studio show, NASCAR AMERICA. It only takes a few moments to mike up Earnhardt before host Rick Allen and analyst/part-time Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton begin to ask him question about his big win.
And even though it’s clear that Earnhardt’s running on seven cylinders after a late night inside his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the happiness over his accomplishment is there.
“I’m gonna enjoy it,” he says. “It’s not every day you get to go through this experience…I didn’t expect to do this once, let alone twice, so I’ll let it sink in and enjoy it.”
It’s a fact everyone connected with NASCAR acknowledges: As Junior goes, so goes the sport. It certainly didn’t hurt for NASCAR AMERICA to have the son of the Intimidator as the centerpiece for its debut episode – not to mention that the race was actually able to get done following a six hour, 22-minute rain delay.
But NASCAR AMERICA, which debuts 18 months before the start of NBC’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series race coverage, doesn’t aim to thrive solely on star power alone.
At over six decades old, NASCAR can boast of having an exciting tapestry of stories that continues to evolve. And it’s compelled NBC to go for it and not wait until their races begin in the summer of 2015.
“NASCAR is an incredibly valuable property and once we realized we had the resources and the ability to launch a show, it was a no-brainer,” Vice President of NASCAR production Jeff Behnke told MotorSportsTalk on Thursday.
“We are partners with NASCAR, first and foremost. Having this opportunity to be part of this, to re-energize NASCAR, and to get into it from a programming standpoint immediately was a tremendous opportunity for us.”
NBC re-enters a sport that is much different from when they left it at the close of the 2006 season.
TV ratings and live attendance have dropped, and there’s been renewed talk of having to regain the attention of younger fans in order to help bolster the sport’s older core.
However, that core is still very loyal and it’s a group that Behnke says will be served well by NASCAR AMERICA.
“Our first responsibility is to those core fans,” he said. “Our immediate goal is to do things in our show that are going to cater to the core fans. From there, yes, obviously the younger demographic is a key demo and as time progresses, we’ll do stuff for them.
“But the immediate goal is to go to the core fans and get them…When fans watch on TV, and see the fans are filling up the stands again, they think it is an important event and they’ll want to stay and watch it. It’s a progression – you have to start somewhere and that starting point is NASCAR AMERICA.”
For many of those core fans, racing is not just a three or four-hour affair in front of the television but a way of life itself. Every weekend, they haul their battered but unbroken race cars to the local short track to compete or to help their sons and daughters compete.
A brief but neat segment on the show, the Heart of Racing, acknowledges those grass-roots racers and their families who are, collectively, the lifeblood of American motorsport.
“Racing goes on at tracks all over the country, every weekend, every region,” Behnke explains. “It’s just one little way to let the fans know that racing is a big part of their life. We’re going to do the Heart of Racing all year long, and that small segment will continue to grow.
“That’s directly for core fans, but it’s also for other people to know about that world of racing, one that a lot of people may not know.”
There are other worlds that even the biggest fans don’t know about, and Behnke and his team are ready to reveal them as part of NASCAR AMERICA.
To help their efforts, NBC has set up a second studio for the show in Charlotte, N.C., the hub of the stock car racing industry.
“Some of the key points with our show is trying to take fans and viewers to places they can’t go,” Behnke said. “We have a LiveVue cam and we’re going to different race shops and doing different interviews. Just this week, we were at Tommy Baldwin Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, as well as one other shop.
“This week alone, we were at five different shops in our first four days. We have the ability to go to two different shops, do reports from inside the shops, and try to give those fans a view of a place they can’t normally go. It’ll be a key part of our show all year.”
All of that effort is necessary. As mentioned before, NASCAR constantly evolves and this year will be no different as elements such as a knockout-style qualifying format and a revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup (which sets up a four-driver, winner-take-all battle in the season finale) make their debut.
It’ll be an adventure staying on top of all the twists and turns of what should be a dramatic season. But Behnke and the team at NASCAR AMERICA are ready.
“We didn’t want to wait [for 2015],” he said. “It was time.”
INDIANAPOLIS – There’s something about Neil Alberico in his second year in a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series that brings out the best for the 24-year-old out of Los Gatos, Calif. who now lives in San Clemente.
Alberico, the Rising Star Racing-supported driver, always seems to improve in year two and has done so throughout his now six years in the MRTI.
In the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Alberico switched from JDC Motorsports as a rookie to Cape Motorsports as a sophomore from 2012 to 2013. He improved from seventh in points to second, and won six races that second year.
The same story applied on the next rung in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, although he stayed with Cape for both seasons. Third without a win in 2014 ceded to four wins and second place in 2015.
Arguably the best driver who has not yet won a championship in those series, Alberico has positioned himself nicely for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title this year as Carlin’s emerging lead driver following a solid first few weekends of the year, as he now seeks his first win in Indy Lights to keep the career trend going.
Entering Friday’s Freedom 100, the marquee race of the Indy Lights season (live, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Alberico has opened his 2017 account in the No. 22 Dallara IL-15 Mazda with two thirds, two fourths and a sixth place thus far in six races. He sits fourth in points with 103, 36 back of points leader and fellow Californian Kyle Kaiser. For reference, persistent and continual mechanical issues and engine changes stunted a miserable debut season in 2016, and Alberico only had two top-six finishes all season, and left him 11th in points.
Now though Alberico has ascended to the team leader role at the Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-managed squad. He drives alongside Zachary Claman De Melo, who switched from Juncos Racing, and rookies Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards. All but Rickards have at least one podium this season as the new-look lineup finds its footing.
“Playing the leadership role in a team, I’m used to it,” Alberico told NBC Sports. “I’m comfortable doing what I can do. And that’s your job as a teammate. You have to be fast yourself, but there’s driver and team championships that exist – and we want to win them both.”
Alberico credits a healthy offseason program where he undertook a lot of private testing and a year’s worth experience both in these cars and with a team that has led to his growth. He also feels more comfortable with the Indy Lights-specification of Cooper Tires, as he struggled to maximize their pace on an optimal lap in qualifying last year.
“Every year you adapt to new challenges as a driver. Last year as a rookie the tire was a big part of that challenge that I needed to learn,” he said. “But it’s now gone more to my favor – or more what I’m used to.
“Going into the offseason, it’s been nice to have a lot of private test time. When you have a private test, there’s driving stuff you can work on, being good on cold tires, or having new tires to work on. It’s the small little details. When you have private time to work on yourself, that’s the most productive.”
While Alberico is serious about the task at hand, he’s not afraid to have fun and laugh it off at the track. That humor involves his engineer, Geoff Fickling, team manager, Hale, and his supporters in Rising Star Racing.
Alberico and Fickling, a renowned and championship-winning engineer in multiple rungs of the MRTI (Ed Jones with Carlin last year and Gabby Chaves with Belardi in 2014 in Indy Lights, plus Jack Hawksworth with Pelfrey in 2012 in Pro Mazda), live not far apart in San Clemente, and at times, almost spend too much time together.
“Geoff and I get along great on a personal level. But sometimes he hates when I’m at his house looking for data – he’s gotta be like, ‘I want to get away, and I can’t get away from my driver!’” Alberico laughed. “But he’s very thorough. He’ll go the extra mile to teach me more what I need to learn.”
Alberico has also started making his Instagram videos must-see-content for the rather hilarious interaction between the laid-back Californian and the focused, often intently serious Hale, who has made Carlin a championship-winner in Indy Lights in just its second season. There’s a confidence Alberico has in providing humor here that may not have existed last year given the struggles that were out of his, or the team’s control.
And then there’s the fact Alberico was the one responsible for bringing in the most out-of-left-field IndyCar sponsor this year, which was awesome, in Loki the Wolfdog. We’ll let Neil take it from here…
“Rising Star Racing is, for those that don’t know, such an awesome initiative through MRTI into IndyCar,” Alberico said. “Spencer Pigot and I have been part of that program, which does a lot for young drivers.
“The Loki deal is just basically a friend of mine with a really famous Instagram dog. Social media has become a huge part of the sport the last several years, and I think sponsor and teams need to adapt at those times.”
Loki was on site at Long Beach and met Pigot there for the first time, thanks to the connection between the Rising Star Racing teammates. It’s not been the only partner Alberico has brought in; Laguna Beach-based modern drug addiction and alcoholism treatment center Oceanfront Recovery is on both Alberico’s Indy Lights car and Pigot’s No. 11 Juncos Racing Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500.
Pigot and Alberico have been Art Wilmes’ two “primary” drivers for RSR over the years, but not the only ones RSR has supported.
There’s others such as last year’s Pro Mazda champion, Indy Lights rookie Aaron Telitz (who actually won on his debut at St. Petersburg and has been overlooked from a media perspective) and another MRTI veteran Jake Eidson in the RSR roster. RSR is set to formally add Oliver Askew, who’s off to a stellar start in USF2000, rather soon.
As Alberico heads to the Freedom 100 this weekend, he’s got the continuity from a team and engineering standpoint, and determined to secure his breakthrough win in a year when Telitz, Colton Herta and Nico Jamin have all become Indy Lights race winners.
“I like staying with the same team. When you gel with team mechanics, engineers, you don’t want to go through the new process again,” Alberico said. “That’s why you do better in your second year, and in the third year even more so.
“At the IndyCar level it’s about those 10-plus year relationships – and that’s hard to create as a rookie! So you have to learn and adapt with those with 10-year relationships.
“Here, the wind is a bigger factor. But we have the race lap record! We’re not slow. We like this place. Let’s put ourselves in position to win the race.”
Alberico, who mentioned the wind there, also had the chance to play weatherman for the local CBS affiliate (WTTV-4) here in Indianapolis last week. And that provided him and Telitz a chance to provide some competitive banter beyond what they’ve done on track.
INDIANAPOLIS – One came to America with almost nothing from Argentina. One has operated a local construction firm and taken his passion from fandom to his own team. And one has been a staple of the sports car scene for more than a dozen years, yet now finally gets to live out his original passion back in the open-wheel world.
Add in an iconic name in McLaren coming back to the Brickyard after a several-decade hiatus and you’ve got three new team owners and one returning major manufacturer name as the team newcomers in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Combined, they field five cars. Ricardo Juncos making his INDYCAR debut with a full two-car effort for Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra. Mike Harding has assembled a new one-car entry on his own for Gabby Chaves. Mike Shank has partnered with Andretti Autosport to run a car for rookie Jack Harvey, while McLaren, Honda and Andretti have combined as branding partners for the Fernando Alonso entry that folks hope will eventually preview a fuller McLaren entry down the road.
As for the three that are here from a team standpoint, Juncos has the most successful open-wheel pedigree among the three entrants. Any keen-eyed observer of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires will have seen Juncos’ team’s success and preparation showcased in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, championships which they won by the end of their second full season in each. Spencer Pigot won him championships in both back-to-back in the two in 2014 and 2015 and Conor Daly won the Pro Mazda title in 2010; both are Juncos alumni now in IndyCar.
But stepping up into IndyCar was always going to be a question of timing, opportunity and financial resources with which to do so. Luckily as KV Racing Technology’s era of operation drew down, so its equipment became available, and Juncos was able to acquire what was needed to step up.
All this was occurring while Juncos was prepping a two-car Indy Lights team as scheduled for 2017, and then completed an eleventh hour deal to keep its Pro Mazda team going after selling off that equipment. But this also comes after Juncos moved into his new 44,000-square foot shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. in December.
“A lot’s been going on – like a storm!” Juncos told NBC Sports. “But we put a full IndyCar team together in two months, from zero, in terms of everything. We assembled and put the cars together, and all these people together, without missing anything on the Pro Mazda or Indy Lights teams.
“Last weekend, when we won both races in Pro Mazda, and were able to win the one in Indy Lights, it’s all about the team effort – we are doing IndyCar without making any issues on these teams. That’s the goal. It was a lot of work, but everything is very good. I’m still learning everyday. I’m excited for what the future can give us, for this race.”
The crew features a number of KVRT alumni, including Greg Senerius (team manager). The engineering staff includes technical director Tom Brown, an open-wheel and sports car veteran, along with past Indy 500-winning entrant Steve Newey and fellow IndyCar veteran David Cripps, who came up frustratingly short of winning when he was with Panther Racing.
Shank, who brings the majority (but not all) of his Acura NSX GT3 sports car crew to the Andretti team, which keeps the band of lifers together from his shop based outside Columbus in Patalaska, Ohio. They got the chance to go with him to Le Mans last year and now get to add Indy, with Shank, to their resumes. Noting how much people love Shank, his longtime friend and Rolex 24 driver AJ Allmendinger and Allmendinger’s friend and current Shank Acura driver Katherine Legge have been here for support this week.
“It’s not about me. It’s always been about my guys,” Shank told NBC Sports. “My guys have been with me from 10 to 23 years, always standing behind me. A lot of guys have been with other teams, but if we want to do Indy, we want to do it as a present group. Whatever happens, we deal with. We fix it. We do it together.
“I try not to micromanage. For me, it’s step back and let (Tim) Keene (team manager) run the show. With the technical background Andretti has, the whole thing is so very good. Let’s see where we land. This could be interesting.”
Interesting it was – albeit for the wrong reasons on the opening day of practice for Harvey. With the car encountering a steering issue, Harvey was shot into the Turn 2 wall exiting the warmup lane and suffered right front damage. That required a rebuild of the car after it was stripped down and then put back together, but the English driver has made methodical progress forward since that point, culminating with 124 laps run on Monday.
Bad as that day was, it’s still a damn sight better than the potential debut Shank could have had in IndyCar in 2012. Shank’s engine plight was made public as Honda and Chevrolet added extra teams saddled with Lotus engines that wanted to switch prior to Indy, which wasn’t in either manufacturer’s game plan. Yet it also left a bitter taste for Shank, who had gone out, purchased a Dallara DW12 chassis, but couldn’t get an engine to run it outside of the Lotus. Had he debuted with that engine, it’s quite possible Shank in IndyCar could have been one-and-done.
In the five years since, INDYCAR’s leadership structure has evolved and it’s likely that without Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, among others than neither Juncos nor Shank would be racing next weekend in the ‘500. Both owners took the time to thank Frye and INDYCAR as a result.
“To be honest one of the things that surprised me the most is how professional they are,” Juncos said. “Mark Miles, Jay Frye, everyone in INDYCAR, marketing, to the PR guys. Bill van de Sandt invited us to T&S and Race Control so I could have an idea! They pushed me to do this.
“I knew it was probably the right opportunity at the right time. But it was still a big, big task. Jay Frye gave me a bit of confidence and support that this is the right thing to do. I’m so pleased to have those guys. The support is massive, and for drivers to believe in our program.”
“It’s a deep exhale! What we went through, no one should have to go,” Shank explained. “There’s two people I have to thank: Jay Frye and Mark Sibla have championed us. They came and saw me after the 2017 Rolex and said, ‘If you want to come here, let’s work it out with a team since I don’t have a car.’ But they were very instrumental. They always answer their phones.”
If Juncos and Shank have been known from their pedigree in other series, Harding’s arrival is more of a surprise because it comes largely out of left field. But that’s not a bad thing.
With a construction background by trade with the Harding Group, Harding had always been a fan of the Indianapolis 500. Yet after last year’s 100th running, he took a big leap of faith in tandem with team manager Larry Curry to turn that fandom into an actual program, and purchase two new Dallaras as a result, complete with Harding’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. fandom producing a stylized No. 88 Chevrolet. And for good measure, Al Unser Jr. is working with the team as a driver coach.
“I had gone away from racing, other than Indy-only things,” Curry told NBC Sports. “I worked for Mike. Mike asked me if I was gonna do last year’s 500. I told him, ‘But I work for you!’ ‘You need to go do it,’ he said. ‘You’ve been there so many years. You have to do it. I’ll give you off whatever time you need.’
“So I did, and the race is over, we’re up in the suite talking. He said, ‘What do you think about doing this? What do you think about us doing our own deal?’ I just said right away, ‘Mike, it’s very extensive.’ He replied, ‘I never asked that. I asked, would you do it for me.’ But you know how it is, there’s a lot of excitement in May… this’ll go away. Guess what, it didn’t!”
Harding backed that up nicely. “Larry worked for me for the last couple years, and he mentored Tony Stewart,” he said. “So I told him, ‘What do you think about starting a team this year?’ And he was all gung ho for it. We didn’t know if it’d really happen for it, but it came through.”
One of the things that’s additionally nice about all three of these entrants is their push to provide opportunities for recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates. Pigot, 23, completes a 15-year journey with Juncos that began in karting together. Saavedra, a seemingly eternal 26, has been in-and-out of IndyCar for parts of seven seasons; this is his seventh team he’s attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 with.
Harding runs Chaves, who edged Harvey, Shank’s driver, for the 2014 Indy Lights title on a tiebreaker.
All of the team owners are so thrilled with the upside and potential of their young stars.
“It’s crazy obviously!” Juncos laughed. “These things have only happened a few times in history. For me, 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old. Now we’re living this. Sometimes things happen in humanity, which luckily happened for us. Without losing the focus, enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, of both of us together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”
“Having Jack, it’s part of the package. We’re all one kit together,” Shank said. “Jack, you’re on my side now. My guys are the same way. They’ll support him good and bad.”
“Mike Hull from Ganassi recommended Gabby Chaves to us, he’s the best one out there,” Harding said. “I set up an interview with Gabby and couldn’t believe how mature this 23-year-old man was. I think we made the right decision.”
Naturally, debuting is one thing but future development and staying power is the ultimate goal here.
Juncos has long harbored ambitions of a full-time IndyCar program, Shank has now opened the doors to one in addition to his continued, dedicated sports car presence, and Harding already seems set to race at least twice more this year.
For this race, Chaves has qualified the best in 25th for Harding, with Harvey in 27th for Shank and Andretti, then the Juncos pair of Pigot (29th) and Saavedra (31st) a little further behind. Both of the Juncos cars had slow fourth laps in qualifying; Juncos has pushed through with a rebuild of Pigot’s primary car from Friday to Saturday, working through the night to get the car ready to go for Pigot to qualify.
With only eight full-time owners now, and with three of them in Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti fielding 12 full-time cars of 21 and 15 of 33 at Indy, spreading the car count among other teams is one of INDYCAR’s key goals for 2018 and beyond.
“I think it’s really key,” said Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company Hulman & Co. “I don’t think that’s an economic driver for us, but it’s very healthy to have more diversity in our owner group.
“We love Roger, we love Michael, we love Chip … and we love all the rest of our current paddock. But more owners being invested in the series is a healthier thing. It’s very good.
“Besides these three when you have Zak Brown talking about a couple cars, not just at the Indy 500 but INDYCAR, it’s a very exciting thing.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais posted for the first couple times on Twitter on Tuesday since his accident on Saturday that left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture in his right hip.
Bourdais, driver of the No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing, was injured during a qualifying run that was on pace to be the fastest of the day and secure his place in the Fast Nine shootout to win pole for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
From IU Methodist hospital, Bourdais already joked he “wouldn’t be going for a run” since he’s on crutches, and then had a visit from the rest of the Coyne crew. He’s thanked everyone for their support.
“First day after the crash he was saying he wanted to be back for Sonoma [the season finale]. I said, ‘No, skip Sonoma, then you’ve got an extra four months to heal, and come back in January and we’ll do it right,’” Coyne told Malsher.
Talented young guns Matthew Brabham and RC Enerson were also mentioned within Malsher’s report as possibilities to take over the No. 18 Honda the rest of the way, having both impressed in limited 2016 race starts. Enerson also has the familiarity of working with Coyne in his three races last season.
Neither has a full-time ride this year in open-wheel but have driven elsewhere, Brabham in Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks and Enerson with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports in IMSA.
INDIANAPOLIS – The Freedom 100 will run for the 15th time as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins Friday at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN with the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Known for its scintillating action and incredible finishes, Indy Lights seems set to deliver more of the same of that this go-around, after a pair of 90-minute test sessions held today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With a tow-assisted lap of 200.070 mph in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, Colton Herta topped the combined speed charts. This will be the 17-year-old’s first big oval race, after only testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway over the winter.
“The draft was the same in the straight-line everywhere,” Herta said. “Obviously, it was a bit more here [rather than Homestead] since we’re going quicker at Indianapolis.
“The main thing is slipstreaming in the corners. It’s really different from anything I’ve experienced, especially when you’re right behind someone and you put half of a wing out or a quarter of the wing out.
“The balance shift is massive. That’s obviously going to be something all the rookies will have to get used to. I would say down the straights, it’s nothing too different.
“It’s really crazy when you pull out of the slipstream, how far your head will move down in the car. You get pushed down so much with the wind, and that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve felt. You feel like you’re going that fast the first few laps, but once you kind of get into it, the other cars around you move at a similar pace, so I don’t really think about it. But, it feels good to break the 200 mark.”
Herta’s speed was on display while the race craft of the other 13 drivers competing was also featured prominently on Monday.
Herta is one of seven rookies set to compete in his first Freedom 100, the others being Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz (the Mazda Scholarship recipient), Ryan Norman and Nico Jamin also of Andretti Autosport, Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards of Carlin and Nicolas Dapero of Juncos Racing.
Dapero had a spin towards the end of the second test session as when trying to pass Andretti’s Dalton Kellett, he lost control of his No. 31 Juncos Racing entry and did a 360-degree pirouette and spin. The young Argentine contacted the inside wall but sustained only front wing damage.
The veterans will look to succeed on Friday. Juan Piedrahita looked racey today in his No. 2 Team Pelfrey machine; the Colombian, who made his 100th career start on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires last time out at the IMS road course, nearly won this race last year.
The other veterans include Kyle Kaiser, the points leader for Juncos, along with Santiago Urrutia (Belardi with SPM), Shelby Blackstock (Belardi), Neil Alberico and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin).
Jamin, Kellett, Kaiser and Alberico (pictured below from left to right) were all on hand at a premiere of “Indy Light” beer at Metazoa Brewing Company in downtown Indianapolis last week.