David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. (Photo courtesy TRD)

Had it not been for CART-IRL split, Toyota might never have come to NASCAR

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The NASCAR that we know today might have a significantly different look if it wasn’t for the split between CART and the upstart Indy Racing League in the mid-1990s.

Had the IRL not been formed and essentially excommunicated CART from racing at the Indianapolis 500, Toyota may never have decided to move its resources and racing hopes to NASCAR.

That comes in a story by Tom Jensen on FoxSports.com with a fascinating revelation and admission by David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Research and Development, which spearheads the manufacturer’s NASCAR initiative.

Toyota had begun an Indy car development program in the early 1990s and was preparing to race at Indianapolis in 1996.

But when former IMS president Tony George formed the alternative IRL circuit – with two of its supposed key intentions to create a series to develop more American-born drivers, as well as make open-wheel racing more affordable and attractive to prompt groups to form more American teams – it caused a deep rift within the open-wheel ranks.

George’s declaration that only IRL-affiliated teams would be welcome to compete in the 1996 Indy 500 not only kept CART out, it forced Toyota to radically alter its open-wheel plans.

Originally intent on racing at Indy, Toyota instead aligned with CART from 1996-2002.

“We literally were testing cars and engines at the speedway (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in 1994 and we didn’t get to race there until 2003, when we joined the IRL ranks,” Wilson said.

And when that happened, Toyota quickly realized its return on investment was dramatically less than expected.

“To demonstrate the lack of value … in 2003, we won the Indy 500, we won the race in Japan, we won 13 out of 16 races that year, and that fall, we still had to sell to our management to stay in the sport,” Wilson said.

“As much as we loved it from an engineering standpoint, we also starting realizing that there were a lot of empty seats. And open-wheel in the United States was not exactly catching fire, so that started our … relationship with NASCAR.”

Toyota’s run in the IRL was agonizingly short-lived. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop its open-wheel program, Toyota ultimately departed the IRL and abandoned its overall open-wheel program just three seasons later.

But before the open-wheel program was discontinued, Toyota had already begun working on entering NASCAR, ultimately joining the-then Camping World Truck Series ranks in 2004 and eventually climbing to the marquee Sprint Cup series in 2007.

Even today, 18 years after the IRL (now known as IndyCar) was formed, it’s clear the wounds from its split with CART still run deep, fracturing open-wheel racing in the U.S., from which it still hasn’t recovered – and may never will.

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Red Bull, Aston Martin partnership continues into 2017

GAYDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing talks on stage at the Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing Project AMRB 001 Unveil on July 5, 2016 at the Aston Martin Headquarters in Gaydon, England on July 5, 2016 in Gaydon, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The partnership between Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin will continue into 2017, Red Bull confirmed on Tuesday.

Branding on the Red Bull Formula 1 chassis will continue, while bigger news has come in terms of the AM-RB 001 hypercar.

Red Bull and Aston Martin announced that all 150 road-going cars of the 175 cars built (the other 25 are track-only specials) have been sold and customer deliveries will begin in early 2019.

An AM-RB 001 prototype is expected to run for the first time by the end of this season.

“We first conceived our Innovation Partnership with Aston Martin in the realization that it could be truly pioneering,” said Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing team principal.

“In blending our distinct but unique skills under a shared creative vision, we have already seen tangible development to both of our brands and businesses. The extraordinary success of the AM RB-001 is testament to the expert and collaborative spirit in which it was forged, and extending our relationship with Aston Martin through 2017 was a simple and pleasing decision.”

Aston Martin President and CEO Andy Palmer added,  “By bringing together the talents of Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin, AM-RB 001 is destined to become the defining hypercar of this decade and a hugely desirable investment for collectors and enthusiasts.

“Our relationship with Red Bull Racing has done for Aston Martin exactly what we expected it to do,” he continued. “It is helping us to continue to build our brand across the globe. Partnerships like this are good for business both in terms of technical innovation and brand awareness, so we are pleased to continue into 2017.”

FIA WEC Prologue changes date to avoid Papal visit clash

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - FEBRUARY 14:  Pope Francis attends a meeting with engaged couples from all over the world gathered today, on the feast of St. Valentine, in St. Peter's Square   on February 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the event, organised by the Pontifical Council for the Family, Pope Francis emphasised that living together is 'an art, a patient, beautiful and fascinating journey' which can be summarized in three words: please, thank you and sorry.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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The FIA World Endurance Championship Prologue has shifted dates, moving from its originally scheduled March 24-25 date to April 1-2 still at Autodromo di Nazionale, Monza.

The reasoning is that His Holiness Pope Francis will be making an official visit to Monza on those dates. Naturally, organizational, security and logistical preferences will follow for that.

The European Le Mans Series continues as planned on March 28 and 29 with its preseason test.

For fans of clashes, two more have been created on account of this date shift. The FIA Formula E Championship race at Mexico and Blancpain GT Series season opener at Misano fall on the same weekend as the Prologue.

The full revised calendar (for the moment, and for the last time, we hope) is below.

Wolff on Alonso to Mercedes rumors: ‘You have to consider Fernando’

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda walks in the Paddock during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Toto Wolff has responded to speculation about Fernando Alonso moving to Mercedes for the 2017 Formula 1 season by saying that officials at the team “have to consider” the Spaniard.

Just five days after winning his maiden F1 title with Mercedes in Abu Dhabi, Nico Rosberg shocked the motorsport world by announcing his immediate retirement from racing.

The news has left Mercedes in need of a driver for 2017, but after boasting the best car on the grid for the past three years, the seat is highly coveted.

Alonso has one year to run on his McLaren contract, but has been linked with the drive for 2017 as he looks to win his first World Championship since 2006.

Speaking to British broadcaster Sky Sports, Mercedes executive chairman Wolff said that Alonso had to be considered as a candidate for the seat, but acknowledged that the two-time champion remains under contract.

“You have to consider Fernando,” Wolff said.

“He’s a driver that I respect a lot, and combines the talent, speed, experience – it’s all there.

“But he’s in a contract with McLaren-Honda at the moment. We just need to weigh all the other options up.”

Whoever Mercedes opts to sign for 2017 will partner Lewis Hamilton, who said last week that he would not insist on having number one status at the team.

Wolff said that Mercedes would continue to operate with its equal chances philosophy between its drivers in 2017, regardless of who was signed.

“We will maintain the system like we had,” Wolff said.

“We will always have equal status for all drivers, give them equal opportunity to the best of our ability. I say that, meaning Abu Dhabi…

“I think we owe it to the fans and owe it to ourselves that you can’t have a pecking order straight from the beginning. It’s not what we’d like to see happening.”

NHRA: JR Todd to Kalitta Funny Car, Troy Coughlin to Top Fuel

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In the wake of Del Worsham announcing he was leaving Kalitta Motorsports for his family team, the DHL Funny Car needed to be filled.

Today Kalitta Motorsports has confirmed Worsham’s replacement, with JR Todd the replacement there as he moves from Top Fuel to Funny Car. Meanwhile, Troy Coughlin Jr. will step up into Top Fuel.

The release is below:

Kalitta Motorsports is pleased to announce that current Top Fuel driver J.R. Todd is moving to the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car seat vacated by Del Worsham. In turn, Troy Coughlin Jr. will move from the planned part-time sixth team to a full-time seat aboard the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster.

Todd is making his return to the Funny Car class, but for the first time as a driver. He worked on Bob Gilberston’s Funny Car during the 2003-2005 NHRA seasons with current Kalitta employees Nicky Boninfante and Tommy DeLago.

“Connie told Jim O the DHL Toyota is a special car and that I was the right guy for the job, which was a huge compliment to me,” said Todd, who will make his Funny Car debut at the Circle K Winternationals in February. “I am going to miss Del as a teammate as he has always been one of my heroes. I want to also say a huge thanks to SealMaster and their awesome franchisees. They are great people and it was an honor to represent them.”

Todd turns to the Funny Car class after a career season aboard the SealMaster Toyota Top Fuel dragster. In 152 Top Fuel events, Todd has earned nine victories, 19 final round appearances, nine No.1 qualifiers and 149 round wins. He was the 2006 AAA Road to the Future rookie winner and has placed in the top five in the point standings two times, including a fourth-place effort this year.

“Ever since I worked with Nicky and Tommy D on a Funny Car, driving one has been in the back of my mind and most people have known that. The DHL Toyota has quite the legacy and it is a huge honor to be picked to drive it.”

DHL will continue as the primary sponsor on Todd’s Toyota Camry Funny Car for the entire season.

Coughlin, Jr. will have an elite team to drive for during his rookie season. In 2016, Todd took the SealMaster machine to a race win in Sonoma, 37 round wins and a top five finish in the point standings.

“I am thrilled to be competing full-time for Kalitta Motorsports in 2017 with an incredible backer like SealMaster and their franchise owners,” said Coughlin, Jr. “The car is one of the best looking machines on the race track and it is awesome to be able to know I will have a car that can compete for the title.”

Coughlin, Jr. won the 2013 Super Gas title in division 3 and is a two-time NHRA U.S. Nationals winner. In, 2015, he drove in the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod series and was named Rookie of the Year. In his career, the 26-year-old driver has driven Junior Dragsters, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Dragster and Pro Mod machines. Earlier this year, he earned his Top Fuel license.

NHRA Lifetime Achievement award winner and drag racing legend Connie Kalitta will continue alongside Rob Flynn in their roles after their outstanding 2016 season. SealMaster remains as the primary sponsor on the machine for all 24 events.

“I am excited for the future of our team,” said Jim Oberhofer, Vice President of Operations, Kalitta Motorsports. “First, I want to thank our incredible partners, DHL and SealMaster, for helping make this transition seamless. Both J.R. and Troy are ready for the 2017 season. J.R. is a very motivated driver and continues to be a perfect fit at Kalitta Motorsports. I know he will be a great ambassador for DHL and Toyota and I look forward to see what the season holds.  I am also thrilled to be able to get Troy into a full time seat. He proved to be a very precise driver during our test session in Las Vegas and I know he is going to do a great job in the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster.”

Finally, the Kalitta Motorsports Funny Cars will also see a reorganization of the team’s crew chiefs. Todd’s DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car will be led by Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith as co-crew chiefs. Smith comes from teammate Paul Lee’s Funny Car. Former DHL co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante will join Tommy DeLago on the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry Funny Car driven by Alexis DeJoria and Glen Huszar will lead Lee’s McLeod Racing Funny Car. All five Funny Car crew chiefs are former NHRA champions.

Both Coughlin, Jr. and Todd will have solid teammates backing them up. Coughlin, Jr. will partner with 2016 championship runner-up Doug Kalitta in the Top Fuel ranks, while Todd will be joined by Alexis DeJoria and Paul Lee in the Funny Car ranks. Coughlin, Jr., DeJoria, Kalitta and Todd will all compete full-time with Lee planning a part-time run.