Andretti Autosport driver Munoz of Colombia stands next to his race car during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 in Indianapolis

IndyCar’s rookie trio bullish for St. Pete debuts


At least three and potentially a fourth rookie driver will be part of the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year class in the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, and could play spoilers in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

For Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, this will be their first opportunities to race the Dallara DW12-Honda on a road and street circuit in a normal weekend.

Munoz, who will drive the No. 34 Cinsay Inc./ Honda for Andretti Autosport, made a last-minute substitute appearance for Ryan Briscoe at Panther Racing in the second Toronto race a year ago. But that marked his first time ever in one of these cars on a road or street circuit, and to jump in and finish the race was all that could have realistically been achieved.

Now, though, he wants to live up to the high standards set by his trio of teammates – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and defending St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe.

“St. Pete is one of the tracks I like a lot. I’ve been really fast in the past (in an Indy Lights car), but I’ve never finished in the past two years I’ve raced there. My main goal is to finish the race, take all the experience, to learn a lot,” said Munoz.

While he failed to finish last year, Hawksworth won in his Indy Lights debut with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He was a late add to Bryan Herta Autosport’s lineup, but impressed in the Barber preseason test. He’ll drive the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda with sponsorship from Charter Media.

“I’m really looking forward to getting the season started this weekend in St. Pete,” said Hawksworth. “It’s a track I’ve been successful at in the lower racing categories and I also lived there during the 2012 season. It’s certainly an event that I enjoy a lot.

“Coming into the race weekend, we have had a couple of solid tests and I think we should be in pretty good shape to start the season. The track is quite short – low grip but still technical. We’ll have to work hard and execute a clean weekend but if we can do this, then we’ll be in with a shout.”

Team owner Bryan Herta added, “The season is finally here and the hard work from the guys in the shop, our partners at Honda, and our driver Jack Hawksworth are ready to be put to the test. With substantial support from Charter, we are looking forward to a strong weekend.”

Schmidt has a rookie of his own in one of his IndyCars – Russian Mikhail Aleshin makes his series debut in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda. Accomplishing what Tristan Vautier did last year – making the Firestone Fast Six on debut – is not an easy ask, but Aleshin already knows what he wants to get out of the weekend.

“Before we even get there, we want to know what changes we are going to make in the car,” Aleshin said. “I’ve been practicing in the simulator at our shop and watching lots of tape. Everyone else will have more experience than me at this track, so I need to do my best to create less opportunity for error.”

He also joked on the irony of being a Russian to make his debut in St. Petersburg.

“It’s very exciting to have our country represented in IndyCar for the first time ever,” Aleshin said. “The name St. Petersburg will also be very recognizable to Russian fans since it’s also the name of one of our most famous cities. It’s funny that they’ll be tuning in to watch me race at a different St. Petersburg in the U.S. It all fits together very well!”

A fourth rookie – Carlos Huertas in the second Dale Coyne Racing entry – has not been officially confirmed by the team. But it’s expected the Colombian rookie will be in the No. 18 Honda this weekend.

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

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NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski