Kurt Busch gives IndyCar chance to show they’ve learned lesson on promotion

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If you’re an IndyCar Series official, you must be feeling pretty good right now.

For years, you’ve heard fans complain of a lack of compelling, straw that stirs the drink-type personalities on the grid. And now, for your biggest race of the season, there will be three of them.

Past Indianapolis 500 champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are certainly not afraid to ruffle people’s feathers. And the latest addition, Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, is much the same way.

All of them will be part of the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this coming May, with Busch doing the “500” in an attempt to become the second driver ever to complete all 1,100 miles of the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double.

The only driver to pull that off? His NASCAR boss and teammate, Tony Stewart, who did it in 2001 with a sixth-place run for Chip Ganassi at Indy and then a third-place effort for Joe Gibbs Racing at Charlotte.

JPM, JV and now, the #DoubleOutlaw – all on the same grid. No race fan worth his or her salt would miss that.

But at the end of the day, only Montoya will still be around as a full-time IndyCar driver. Villeneuve’s ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is a one-off. And Busch will carry on with his Sprint Cup duties.

So while all three of them will certainly move the needle for Memorial Day weekend at the Brickyard, only one of them will be looking to do that throughout the season for the series.

And you’ll be stuck with the same problem that has continued to plague your sport seven years after its reunification and the same problem that has frustrated your steadily dwindling core of a fan base.

“Why can’t we promote our stars?”

The question has fallen to the two newest marketing people brought in by the series, Hulman Motorsports chief marketing officer C.J. O’Donnell and chief revenue officer Jay Frye, both hired in November as part of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles’ reorganization efforts.

Neither O’Donnell or Frye are novices when it comes to promotion. O’Donnell had a long run promoting various brands inside the Ford Motor Company, while Frye pulled off an industry-first sponsorship and team ownership package with The Valvoline Company when he was a NASCAR team executive.

One assumes that as new hires, they’ve needed time to get their proverbial ducks in a row and that’s fine. And one assumes that they’ve also been devoting time toward pursuing a new title sponsor for IndyCar to replace IZOD – a sponsor that can activate and engage fans like IZOD did in the early part of its pact with the series.

But sooner or later, they’re gonna have to get to work on pushing the full-time drivers, not just the ones coming in for May.

The good news for them is the cupboard is not bare despite the losses of perhaps the quintessential open-wheel driver, Dario Franchitti, and the possibly Formula One-bound Simona de Silvestro.

Reigning series champion Scott Dixon surely would’ve preferred not to have had those run-ins with Will Power toward the tail end of last year, but they certainly showed that there is a fire burning within his “Iceman” persona. Other veterans such as Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan, and American stalwart Ryan Hunter-Reay also remain bankable.

At the same time, those veterans (minus Montoya, who’s been in NASCAR for the last seven years) have pretty much been the same guys promoted by IndyCar for years now. There hasn’t been a true expansion on the front that includes the newer wave of drivers.

Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, of course, have the family names. Josef Newgarden’s social media savvy is begging to be further utilized in the Twitter/Facebook age. Charlie Kimball has gone beyond “diabetic driver” status to become a legit contender. And James Hinchcliffe pretty much sells himself: A fun-loving goofball that can kick ass in a race car.

It’s not exactly a series of milquetoasts and misfits. You’d think O’Donnell, Frye and IndyCar would be able to work with this.

Again…You’d think.

Let’s go back two years ago, when Hunter-Reay won the IndyCar championship with Andretti Autosport. He became IndyCar’s first American champ since Sam Hornish Jr. won it all for Team Penske in 2006.

Hunter-Reay had battled through multiple obstacles in his career, from underfunded teams to a lack of job security. For a time, he had devoted every ounce of his being simply to keeping his head above water in the sport.

When he clinched the 2012 title at Fontana, it was the ultimate storybook ending. And IndyCar had a chance to do something with it. This was the proverbial ball placed on a tee, ready to be crushed over the fence, David Ortiz-style.

Instead, they had a curveball thrown. A management shake-up occurred and by October 2012, then-CEO Randy Bernard had left the series. As a result, there was no big off-season push for Hunter-Reay, the star-spangled hero that had never given up and had finally reached the top.

These days, Hunter-Reay is a key part of IndyCar’s nucleus. But you can’t help but think he should be a household name right now, too.

Speaking of right now, there are less than four weeks to go before IndyCar’s 2014 season begins in St. Petersburg, Florida. The series recently had its Media Day in Orlando, but nothing truly big was broken there.

Instead, the major news lately has been Indy 500-centric, from Villeneuve and Busch’s rides to entertainment announcements such as country music star Jason Aldean playing Legends Day and world No.1-ranked DJ Hardwell playing in the Snake Pit on Race Day.

One figures IndyCar will have the promotional engines going for the #DoubleOutlaw saga in May. But whatever they learn from that, those lessons need to be applied to the series as a whole.

The Indy 500 will always be its greatest asset and it’s safe to say the world’s greatest race has regained a lot of the luster it lost during the Split years. But now, everything else around it needs to be bolstered.

IndyCar racing may never completely regain its former glory here in North America. That’s simply down to the fact that they’re battling with a bigger array of entertainment options than there were two or three decades ago.

But it can be better than what it is now. Motorsport as a whole is better with a stronger IndyCar.

And it all comes down to IndyCar effectively showing the world what they can do.

Report: GP Association of Long Beach ‘most qualified’ firm to run race

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Not for the first time, the future of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was in the news earlier this year, and the question of whether Formula 1 could re-enter running the race it did from 1976 to 1983, or whether North American open-wheel racing, in INDYCAR, would keep it up.

The city of Long Beach decided to conduct a study using accounting firm KPMG, and paid the firm $150,000 to evaluate whether existing race operators the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, led by Jim Michaelian, or Chris Pook’s World Automobile Championship, would be best to run the race. Pook founded the event in the 1970s but has in recent years, harbored the return of F1 and suggested it would be a more viable economic prospect.

Per the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the study has now concluded following proposals and interviews from both camps. In a memo obtained by the Press-Telegram, the report indicated the existing GPALB “as the most qualified firm to promote and operate the Long Beach Grand Prix race.”

Michaelian told the Press-Telegram this was an “first but important step” in the process for the race to build a new contract with a city; the existing contract runs through 2018.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, in a statement released to the Sports Business Journal, appreciated the recommendation: that statement is below.

This appears to be a key step towards INDYCAR, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach and the city of Long Beach all working towards an agreement that will keep INDYCAR racing at its most successful, longest running, and marquee street course event on the calendar.

The 2017 Team USA Scholarship candidates revealed

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ trip to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is usually the time of year when we first hear of the candidates for the next year’s Team USA Scholarship, as Jeremy Shaw’s program identifies the next round of talented American drivers who could go on to greater success in racing.

Shaw, known as perhaps the most ardent and best scout of North American driving talent since the program’s inception in 1990, and the program have revealed the 10 candidates who will participate in interviews and further evaluation this weekend before the finalists are named at a later date.

The full release is linked here, while the 10 drivers selected are below.

This year’s Team USA Scholarship candidates are (with age, DOB, hometown and current racing affiliation):

• Sabré Cook, 23, Grand Junction, Colo., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Konrad Czaczyk, 20, Jupiter, Fla., F1600 Formula Tour Championship (Canada)
• Elliot Finlayson, 21, Yorkville, Ill., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Aaron Jeansonne, 18, Sulphur, La., Lucas Oil School of Racing
• Kyle Kirkwood, 18, Jupiter, Fla., F4 U.S. Championship powered by Honda
• Jonathan Kotyk, 23, Atlantic Beach, Fla., F1600 Championship Series
• Jacob Loomis, 17, Corinth, Texas, F4 US Championship/Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
• David Osborne, 21, Cincinnati, Ohio, F1600 Championship Series
• Simon Sikes, 16, Martinez, Ga., Skip Barber Racing Series
• Carter Williams, 18, Clovis, Calif., Formula Car Challenge Presented by Goodyear

Rahal, RLL on a roll heading home to Mid-Ohio

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Graham Rahal’s potential last best chance to close a boatload of points in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase comes this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and it couldn’t come at a better time on the calendar.

He sits tied with Will Power for fifth in the points, 64 behind championship leader Scott Dixon (423-359) with five races remaining. Closing that gap to within 40 or less this weekend will provide him a realistic shot at securing his first title.

A nightmare start to the year saw Rahal finish no better than 10th in the first four races, and left him 17th in points with 59 total, 100 back of then-leader Simon Pagenaud.

In the last eight however, he’s finished between first and ninth in all but one of them. His lone finish outside the top 10 came at the double points Indianapolis 500, with a late-race flat tire resigning him to 12th place there.

That score of 300 points over the last eight races is second in the series, only two behind Helio Castroneves with 302, and with both drivers ruing an ill-timed caution flag last race at Toronto that cost both likely chances at another victory this season.

On the whole though, the single-car No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been a regular consistent threat at the front of the field, same as it has in 2015 and 2016 even despite being up against a trio of four-car entries from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Rahal’s qualifying lap on used Firestone red alternate tires at Toronto netted second on the grid and he hailed it as one of the best laps he’s ever completed in his career.

Graham’s performance and the recent run of form has Bobby Rahal pleased as the team heads into its spiritual home race in Lexington, Ohio this weekend, where driver and team scored a popular victory in 2015.

“If you look at the start of the year at Long Beach we qualified sixth, but we were running in the train – fourth or fifth right to the end of the race and had the flat tire,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We just couldn’t seem to get a good break.

“Clearly when we got to the Indy Grand Prix we had problems in qualifying, but the race pace was there. Then a flat tire hit in the 500. We led the race from where we gridded (14th) and we could have threatened at the end. It’s been a little bit snake bit prior to this.

“But clearly the pace was there. Texas finishing fourth there was a good finish. Fifth at Iowa was good. Unfortunately in Toronto, and we had the great qualifying performance I thought, I don’t think anyone was happy post-race! I think even Roger Penske told Graham we got screwed, and even though he won, his own car (Castroneves) lost!

“Still the fact we did it on used reds versus new reds, I thought was pretty impressive. In Toronto we were pretty good – maybe not as good as we were in Detroit – but still pretty good and kept getting better and better.

“I think he’s driving very well. I’m pleased about that. What’s so hard about that qualifying there, is you only have one lap to do on tires on Toronto for example. It’s easy to overdrive a car in that situation, but he hasn’t. I think he’s done a good job in that respect.”

Graham Rahal

For Graham Rahal, who loves coming home to Mid-Ohio, this is an important weekend but one that he always takes the opportunity to savor.

“It’s always great to go back to Mid-Ohio,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories, and have had a lot of great days there. Obviously winning there in 2015 really highlighted my career thus far. I’m excited to get back and hopefully see a great crowd once again. I know we will have a lot of support and I’m very appreciative of that.  Hopefully we can have a great run in the Steak ‘n Shake Honda because we definitely need it at this point in the championship.”

Rahal’s road course performance hasn’t been stellar this year in qualifying with 21st and last at Barber, 20th on the grid at the INDYCAR Grand Prix in Indianapolis, but then a big jump to sixth at Road America, making the Firestone Fast Six. Finishes of 13th, sixth and eighth have represented good comeback drives in the race.

“My hopes and expectations are high,” said Rahal. “We have struggled with our road course setup this year but at the same time I think we are capable of overcoming that. Our guys have put a lot of effort, a lot of time and mental energy into figuring out what we need going forward.”

One of the areas that will help him is his pit position this week. Having qualified second at Toronto last race, Rahal has nearly the perfect pit spot this weekend, as pit lane and track position at Mid-Ohio are crucial.

“Our pit position in Mid-Ohio, based on qualifying second in Toronto, is going to be great. It’s flat so that is going to help us a lot.  Obviously you want to be pitted with the good guys.  You want to be right down there where the fast guys and championship contenders are and we’re right there with them,” he said.

Rahal is in championship contention despite that rocky start to the year and will be looking for some home cooking to fire up the final five races of the season.

New 2018 IndyCar aero kit makes its formal test debut at IMS

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After months of buildup and following Monday’s reveal, Tuesday marked the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit’s official debut on track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

INDYCAR’s release, with a handful of social media posts embedded, is below:

If the first day of on-track testing is any indication, the new Verizon IndyCar Series car is well on its way to making Indy car racing in 2018 even better.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia turned more than 100 laps each on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in their respective Chevrolet- and Honda-powered Dallara IR-12s equipped with the universal aerodynamic bodywork kit making its public debut ahead of being used by all competitors next season.

Afterward, approval of the new car’s bolder, sleeker look and performance was unanimous from everyone involved. Buy-in from the two test drivers – among the most veteran and respected around – was essential and secured from the outset.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said the 43-year-old Servia, who has driven Indy cars since 2000. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away.

“I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

INDYCAR, sanctioning body for the Verizon IndyCar Series, announced in April 2016 its intent to move away from aero kit competition to a universally supplied kit in 2018. Dallara, a series chassis supplier since 1997, was named to produce and supply the universal kit.

“It’s exciting because, for the first time in the car, it drives really, really well,” said Montoya, 41 and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “I think they addressed a lot of the things and the car looks great. I think having one aero kit for everybody is great for the sport. The car looks good and it drives really good.”

Montoya’s car was prepared by Team Penske and Servia’s by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, though INDYCAR is retaining control of the cars until testing is complete in late September. INDYCAR officials watched with nervous excitement as the two cars took to the track for the first time shortly after 9 a.m. ET and methodically worked through the test checklist. By 5 p.m., the checklist had been completed and a potential second day of testing Wednesday was deemed unnecessary.

“We were pleased,” said Bill Pappas, INDYCAR’s vice president of competition/race engineering who headed up the technical development of the universal kit. “It matched up with our numbers that we predicted in the wind tunnel and CFD (computational fluid dynamics), so we were very happy for that.”

Pappas said the test list included short runs by each car to “ensure that there weren’t any surprises,” followed by longer runs on the 2.5-mile oval to check for durability issues. Everyone at INDYCAR and Dallara felt confident the test would be a success, but there are never givens in racing.

“This is my first experience being part of a car being designed,” Pappas said. “Obviously, Dallara did a great job helping us, but you hold your breath until the first competitive laps are run.”

Love this place. @indianapolismotorspeedway is sooo much fun in an @indycar @teamchevy @team_penske @fitzgeraldgliderkits

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Old Boys. @indycar #2018 #shapingthefuture #future #racing #indy500

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Mission accomplished, at least for the first phase of testing. Additional tests for the two cars are scheduled for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 1), Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26). But the fact that this opening test was completed in half the allotted time is reason to celebrate, if only for a short time.

“Everything we had planned to do in two days, we already accomplished in the first day,” Servia said. “We did lots of laps, long runs, and the car feels good. The car feels very benign.

“It just feels right and we’re not having any issues or moments out there. Very consistent. My second long run, I think, was one of my most consistent runs I’ve done at this track in all of my years.”

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season resumes this weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Live race coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with an encore telecast at 7 p.m. on NBCSN.