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IndyCar-Verizon pact should be viewed with cautious optimism

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Sponsor activation is a beautiful thing in motorsports.

NASCAR fans see it every single day. When they’re printing up documents at Kinko’s, they see Denny Hamlin’s race car.

When they walk into a convenience store, they step on a floor sticker with a smiling, Skittles-hawking Kyle Busch.

When they’re pulling into a parking lot for a sports bar, they see signs with Kevin Harvick pushing $2.50 pints of Budweiser for Happy Hour.

And of course, when they’re in a Sprint shop to upgrade their phone, they see signs promoting the company’s title sponsorship of America’s most popular motorsport.

IndyCar fans on the other hand don’t see major sponsors beckoning to them. Beyond the Racing Capitol of the World (and NBCSN broadcasts, of course), these instances get scarce: A wall sign in a Target here, a stray Ryan Hunter-Reay/Sun Drop sticker there.

Your eyes are all you need to recognize the gap between the two series in the public consciousness.

Enter Verizon, which got into NASCAR in 2009 via its acquisition of Alltel but had a challenging time promoting itself in the sport thanks to its aforementioned association with Sprint.

In 2010, Verizon got involved full-time with IndyCar through a primary sponsorship deal with Team Penske and at the end of that year, it shifted its entire motorsports attention from NASCAR to North America’s top open-wheel series.

The telecommunications giant has become one of IndyCar’s biggest partners, both in sponsorship and technology aspects. Now they’re stepping up to the plate as IndyCar’s new title sponsor.

“I think of this day as a game-changer for IndyCar, for the series, for our fans, for the teams, for the drivers,” Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles said this morning in a teleconference.

“In a real sense, I think it represents a kind of confirmation of strategies that we’ve put in place and where we intend to take the sport. It is the beginning of the next phase of IndyCar’s growth.”

Obviously, optimism is rather high about this partnership and you can’t blame IndyCar for that.

IZOD may have made some nice apparel for us race fans who didn’t dare to pull out a shirt two-thirds covered by a driver’s face for a barbecue. But Verizon is close to ubiquitous in our society these days.

Millions of people use their phones and services. They clearly know how to promote their products. But most important of all, the company’s been in the series for a while now.

They’re not going into this blind or with some faint idea of what to expect. They haven’t been scared off by its assorted issues of TV ratings, live attendance, and occasional bouts of political infighting.

They actually seem interested in building the sport.

“We’ve had a great relationship as a partner and with [Team Penske], so when we looked at this, it just became the right time for Verizon to step up in this position,” said Verizon vice president of marketing Brian Angiolet.

“We have been evolving our brand from a mobile and wireless-centric company into more of a technology company. When you think about the role that technology plays in IndyCar, it just seemed like a great match…It’s a perfect match at a perfect time.”

But didn’t we think IZOD was interested too?

To be fair, the apparel brand was doing its part to activate its IndyCar sponsorship during the early stages of its deal with the series, which started in 2010.

But a management change at IZOD’s parent company that occurred midway through the deal resulted in a noticeable pullback of promotion for IndyCar, both on TV and elsewhere.

Last fall, IZOD left a year early, joining a list of ultimately ineffective title sponsors for the series that includes defunct search engine Northern Light and auto parts retailer Pep Boys.

Time will tell if Verizon can be IndyCar’s answer to what R.J. Reynolds and its Winston cigarettes brand did for NASCAR, or if it too winds up on that unenviable list.

For his part, Miles is keeping his eyes on the road ahead.

“I don’t think much about the past, to be frank,” he said. “I’m thinking about how we’re going to take the sport forward. I’ve never spent a second thinking about comparing this situation to prior ones, because I’m so completely convinced about how this partnership will make sense.

“They see the sport the way that we do: It is a compelling, exciting sport that is perfect as the sport to apply technology to make it more compelling to fans…We have complete confidence that this is going to be a home run for IndyCar.”

Fair enough. But Miles is talking about potential here. And while potential is one thing, results are another.

Again, IndyCar has a right to be optimistic. But for the rest of us, that optimism needs to be cautious.

IndyCar followers have been wanting results in regards to promotion for years now. They understood that reunification of the sport in 2008 wasn’t going to be the magic bullet, but seven years after, they’re tired of seeing a tremendous racing product get ignored.

IndyCar may be based in Indiana and Verizon may be based outside New York City. But both should consider making themselves believe that everybody waiting on their big push for the sport is living in Missouri.

Because those people are going to look at this announcement, remember the past failures, and then simply say, “Show me.”

Hinchcliffe gets call to dance on Dancing with the Stars

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda speaks during a media conference before the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Helio Castroneves has won three Indianapolis 500s, but it was his turn on “Dancing with the Stars” that had as much to do with vaulting him into the national consciousness of mainstream Americana – if not more so – as those three victories.

James Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, has the engaging, dynamic personality that has captured the hearts of the North American open-wheel paddock and fan base for nearly a decade. And he’ll get his own mainstream Americana chance on the next season of “DWTS.”

Hinchcliffe was announced Tuesday morning on “Good Morning America” as part of the new season cast for the new season of the ABC show, which premieres September 12. The report was initially identified by the Indianapolis Star.

“Well, I can honestly say this will rank just above the Indy 500 as one of the most nerve-wracking things that I’ve ever agreed to do,” Hinchcliffe said in a team release.

“Normally I’m used to working under pressure in front of a live audience, but I can’t see them, so this should be a totally new experience for me and especially as someone with no ability to dance whatsoever.”

The 29-year-old Canadian follows Castroneves as Verizon IndyCar Series drivers on the show; former NASCAR team owner and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was also on the show a few years ago.

Hinchcliffe sits eighth in points for the 2016 season driving the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. He has three podiums, including a hard-luck runner-up finish Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway by just 0.008 of a second to Graham Rahal, after leading from the restart and after the joke of him leading for 76 straight days in the race’s rain delay.

He also scored a famous pole position for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500, a year after near fatal injuries sustained in an accident in practice in 2015.

Pagenaud, Rahal extoll “unbelievably fast” Watkins Glen

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Rahal (15) and Pagenaud (22). Photo: IndyCar
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The Verizon IndyCar Series points leader and most recent winner are high enough on life anyway following Saturday night’s resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.

But Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal might be even happier headed into this weekend’s Watkins Glen Grand Prix (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), a late add to the 2016 calendar to replace what would have been a first-time street race in Boston.

We caught up with both drivers a few weeks ago before Pocono, while IndyCar was in the midst of a couple off weekends (albeit still with a heavy testing slate).

And both drivers have extolled the 3.4-mile permanent road course in Upstate New York, recently repaved, while noting how “unbelievably fast” it is after testing there.

“It’s really quick man. It was good fun. I was definitely impressed with what we’re experiencing there,” Rahal, who won Saturday night at Texas, told NBC Sports.

“G-load wise, it might be insane. Mid-Ohio was 4.5 Gs in qualifying in Turn 1. There might be some spots at the Glen where it’s that and then some. It’ll be intense.

“For whoever will go and see it, they should enjoy myself. Watching that on-board, which isn’t even at eye-level, because the camera is a little higher up, you can visibly see a lot more… and people are like holy crap!!

“Everyone is blown away by the speeds. If the fans want to go to any race, go to that place, because it looks like unbelievably fast.”

Pagenaud added similar thoughts from an earlier test this year in June, a Firestone tire test.

“Watkins Glen… oh man, it’s absolutely nuts!!” he told NBC Sports. “The tarmac design they have is really grippy. The tires are very consistent. Not much degradation. There’s very high pace and the commitment level is what impresses me the most. So much downforce but also so much grip, it’s doubly what we get! There’s a video game kinda feel!

“You’ll have to brake as little as possible. It’s hard to feel the car. Push those commitment limits, float with the limits. The reaction is really fast.”

Pagenaud, who tested in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet colors but will have a different primary sponsor this go-around, explained how he thinks the race could play out.

“Passing will be difficult… but you can make it happen before the Bus Stop. Push to Pass is awesome for acceleration. It might be more of an advantage uphill. Should be good device. Honestly… there could be a big game of downforce levels. Some might trim out, or put more on.”

Rahal spent his morning session at the August test watching Ed Jones – the Indy Lights driver, not his actual engineer of his No. 15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda Eddie Jones – in the car. And he was blown away with what he witnessed.

“It looks crazy from outside. I was telling [Jake] Query – and I went out and watched – Ed Jones was in my car, and I was like, holy crap!! How am I gonna get up to speed that fast?!?

“It looked insane. I watched from Bus Stop, then the Carousel on down. That left-hander before the pit entry and then the last right-hander onto the front straight is ridiculously, crazy fast. You’re flat through the left, and it’s nuts man. From the outside, there’s the grandstand, and your jaw just drops.

“It’s one of the first times you sit and watch… you legitimately will be blown away.”

Mazda MX-5 VIR photo finish caps busy sports/touring car weekend

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Photo: Mazda Motorsports
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We already touched on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge races from VIRginia International Raceway but this weekend featured quite a bit more sports car and touring car racing action from around the globe.

Here’s some very quick recaps and race winners in events of note:

Also at VIR, the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup ran a pair of races. The second one, Sunday morning, was the highlight of the weekend.

In a crazy five-car deep finish featuring the new Global MX-5 Cup car, series veteran Nathanael Sparks finally secured his first career victory to extend his championship points lead.  The margin of victory from Sparks to Chris Stone was 0.017 seconds, while the margin from first to fifth was just 0.15 seconds. You can watch the finish below, with commentary via the Radio Show Limited team of Shea Adam and past MX-5 Cup series champion Kenton Koch.

Sparks finished runner-up in the first race of the weekend on Saturday to Dean Copeland, with Nikko Reger in third. Sparks, Stone and John Dean II were the podium on Sunday. Sparks leads Ara Malkhassian, 501-432, in the championship with Copeland third on 423.

The $200,000 Mazda Road to 24 scholarship is on the line entering the finale at Road Atlanta next month, although a trip out to Mazda’s spiritual home track, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, beckons next Sept. 9-11 for the non-points Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Invitational.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Porsche GT3 Cup USA Challenge by Yokohama ran a pair of races at VIR as well. Well, “races” in the academic sense – Montreal’s Jesse Lazare continued his domination at the front of the field in the No. 21 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche. Lazare swept to his eighth and ninth wins of the year in 12 races.

On Saturday, Lazare beat Andrew Longe by 1.296 seconds while on Sunday, he beat Lucas Catania to the finish by 13.761 seconds, a season-high. Lazare padded his points lead over Longe to 213-178. Catania is third with 173.

Saturday’s race included a red flag period of 21 minutes due to a single-car accident involving Platinum Masters competitor Bill Peluchiwski in the No. 74 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche. Peluchiwski is awake and alert and has been admitted to an area hospital for evaluation. Further updates will follow at a later date.

This series heads next to Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 14-17) and finishes at Road Atlanta (Sept. 28-Oct. 1).

Michimi. Photo: Jamey Price/Lamborghini
Michimi. Photo: Jamey Price/Lamborghini

The Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America series joined others in the doubleheader at VIR. And like in Porsche, there was only one overall winner. Shinya Michimi of Prestige Performance (representing Lamborghini Paramus) won his fifth and sixth races in eight overall this year.

Of note, Indianapolis 500 rookie Stefan Wilson scored his first series podium in race two, coming third in the Pro-Am category with co-driver David Seabrooke for Prestige.  Additionally, full-time Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda competitor Yufeng Luo made his series debut and in race one, finishing third overall and first in Pro-Am with teammate Richard Antinucci for Shane Senaviratne’s US RaceTronics team.

Lamborghini’s last U.S. round of the year takes place at Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 14-17) before the World Final in Valencia, Spain in December.

Whincup (left) and Lowndes (right). (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Australia’s Virgin Australia Supercars Championship ran two races at Sydney Motorsport Park this weekend, with Shane van Gisbergen (No. 97 Red Bull Racing Australia Holden Commodore VF) and Jamie Whincup (No. 88 Red Bull Holden) winning the two races. But it milestones for Whincup and Craig Lowndes took over in the spotlight.

Whincup’s win was particularly important; it was his 100th of his career. A fuller breakdown is linked here via the Supercars official website, as is a tribute from series chief James Warburton.

Longtime teammate Lowndes, a legend in his own right and the only other driver to have 100 races, celebrated a milestone of his own by hitting the 600-start mark. Fuller stories on that is linked here and here as well, while it appears a new deal for him to stay with Triple Eight boss Roland Dane is looming on the horizon. This year, Lowndes drives the TeamVortex Holden Commodore VF.

Supercars is next up at Sandown Sept. 16-18 and then runs its premier race of the year, the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, Oct. 7-9.

Toyota Gazoo Racing FIA WEC driver and past IndyCar race winner Mike Conway made a cameo in the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan and helped that team’s No. 46 entry with co-drivers Pierre Thiriet and Mathias Beche to its third win in a row at the European Le Mans Series‘ race in Paul Ricard (LMP2 class). Conway filled in for Ryo Hirakawa, who was on Super GT duty.

Others of note… ex-IndyCar and GP2 veteran Stefano Coletti was second in the SMP car he shares with Julian Leal and Andreas Wirth, Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed entry was third, Graff won LMP3 with its No. 9 car but the No. 10 car that features Americans Sean Rayhall and John Falb failed to finish, and Mike Hedlund’s Proton Competition Porsche he shared with Wolf Henzler and Marco Seefried was sixth in GTE, a class won by JMW Motorsport.

ELMS is next up at Spa on Sept. 25, with the season finale at Estoril on Oct. 23.

The Japanese Autobacs Super GT Series was in Suzuka this weekend for a 1000 km race. Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura won overall in the GT500 class in the No. 38 Zent Cerumo Lexus RC F. Hirakawa and James Rossiter failed to finish. Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi won in GT300 in the No. 61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport Subaru BRZ GT300.

Next up for them is Thailand Oct. 8-9.

 

Alex Keyes breaks through for GRC Lites win at Atlantic City

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Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool
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Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Alex Keyes, who’s running a limited season in the GRC Lites division of Red Bull Global Rallycross this season, secured his first 2016 win on Sunday in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Teammate Cabot Bigham finished fifth and retains the GRC Lites points lead, with two more weekends of the year to go in Seattle and Los Angeles. Bigham won the series’ most recent final round in Washington, D.C.

The series’ race recap is below:

IN BRIEF: Alex Keyes did something he’d never done before: he won every single session of GRC Lites action in Atlantic City. From turning the fastest laps in practice and qualifying, to winning both of his heats and the main event, he posted the first perfect weekend of his career; first-time podium finisher Travis PeCoy and Colin Braun placed second and third.

HEAT RECAPS: Keyes blasted out to the lead in both of his heats to back up his pole position and earn lane choice in the main event. Conner Martell, who qualified second overall, won the other first-round heat, but fell back to third in the second round; instead, it was AF Racing Team’s Christian Brooks who would take his first career heat victory in that session. Braun would earn the win in the last chance qualifier over defending series champion Oliver Eriksson.

MAIN EVENT RECAP: For a majority of the race, the podium wasn’t in question; Keyes jumped out to an early lead, PeCoy settled into second place by the second lap, and Braun staked a claim to third place before the race reached halfway. But behind them, the field shuffled throughout the race, with championship contenders having to deal with the implications.

Miki Weckstrom briefly held a top-three spot, but slid back in the pack as the race went on. Martell also had to claw his way forward in the main event to get back into the top six. It was championship leader Cabot Bigham who did the most work to get up front, though; after falling back to ninth on the start, he still made his way back up to fifth. Likewise, Eriksson still managed to salvage fourth place after his LCQ appearance.

UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: The results from Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Atlantic City, the ninth round of the 2016 GRC Lites season:

  1. Alex Keyes, #24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
  2. Travis PeCoy, #3 AF Racing Team
  3. Colin Braun, #56 CORE autosport
  4. Oliver Eriksson, #16 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  5. Cabot Bigham, #2 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
  6. Conner Martell, #21 DirtFish Motorsports
  7. Miki Weckstrom, #45 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  8. Sandra Hultgren, #51 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  9. Christian Brooks, #44 AF Racing Team
  10. Alejandro Fernandez, #126 AF Racing Team
  11. Cole Keatts, #53 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  12. Jon Bennett, #54 CORE autosport

QUOTES: A selection of quotes from Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Atlantic City, the ninth round of the 2016 GRC Lites season:

Alex Keyes, #24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: “This is a great way to end my half of the year! It’s actually been a pretty rough year so far, I haven’t had the results that I’ve wanted, and I’ve made some mistakes along the way. It feels great to finish good, because there are a lot of great people behind it. We have some new partners, but I’m still at DRR—I love the team and everyone on there. We have a mechanic with a birthday today, so this is a nice gift for him. Everyone on the team has been great, and it’s been a great year.”

Travis PeCoy, #3 AF Racing Team: “It’s been building this whole season. The last race, I was fourth and chasing the podium, so I had to get it done this weekend. Keyes was unstoppable this weekend, so kudos to him—he was on rails all day. The Joker really came in handy, and then Weckstrom made a mistake, so I was able to capitalize on that. It was really good racing, thanks to everyone who ran a proper and clean race, and thanks to my whole team. They work so hard, especially coming off of a terrible qualifying run, so it was a surprise to find myself in second. I’m stoked for my mechanics and all my sponsors.”

Colin Braun, #56 CORE autosport: “It’s a blast! This is so fun, very different from what I came from in the style of racing. We proved today that if you find yourself in the LCQ, and you have a fast car, you’re not out of it—but it makes it a lot harder. Hats off to these guys. The CORE autosport guys did a great job of getting the car fixed back up in between rounds, my spotter made a good call on the Joker, and we had good pace. It’s a whole new world, and it’s a blast.”

FAST FACTS: A collection of facts from Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Atlantic City, the ninth round of the 2016 GRC Lites season:

  • Alex Keyes earned the fourth victory of his GRC Lites career, and his first of the 2016 season, on Sunday at Bader Field. It was Keyes’ second podium of the season after a third place in Phoenix, in his final scheduled appearance with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing this year.
  • Travis PeCoy earned his first career Lites podium by placing second in Atlantic City. He also gave the AF Racing Team its first podium result of 2016, while besting a season-high result of fourth earned at Washington DC last month.
  • Colin Braun gave CORE autosport its second podium finish of the season with a third place result on Sunday. Braun’s first podium of the year came in his Lites debut in Daytona in June.
  • None of the top five drivers in the championship standings earned podium finishes on Sunday. Oliver Eriksson (second in points) led the group with a fourth place run, while championship leader Cabot Bigham followed him in fifth.
  • Christian Brooks won the first heat of his GRC Lites career in the second round of heats on Sunday. Brooks finished ninth in the main event.

UNOFFICIAL DRIVER POINTS:

  1. Cabot Bigham, 344
  2. Oliver Eriksson, 324
  3. Miki Weckstrom, 306
  4. Conner Martell, 267
  5. Christian Brooks, 210
  6. Alex Keyes, 178
  7. Travis PeCoy, 175
  8. Tanner Whitten, 165
  9. Alejandro Fernandez, 153
  10. Colin Braun, 106
  11. Collete Davis, 94
  12. Parker Chase, 85
  13. Harry Gottsacker, 85
  14. Trenton Estep, 57
  15. Blake “Bilko” Williams, 55
  16. Sandra Hultgren, 36
  17. Preston Murray, 33
  18. Jon Bennett, 29
  19. Cole Keatts, 15
  20. Nur Ali, 3