The 2014 Indy 500 rookie voting should have been fit to be tied

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Ties are not necessarily popular, but in some instances, they work.

Some Barclays Premier League matches and NHL hockey games are so hard fought by both squads that for one side to emerge ahead of the other doesn’t do justice to the other. After regulation and overtime, sometimes, draws happen.

And last night, a draw should have happened when it came to voting for the 2014 Sunoco Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, because two first-year drivers performed extraordinarily this month under vastly different circumstances.

They are, of course, Kurt Busch and Sage Karam. While Busch captured the award, and justifiably, Karam’s efforts deserved a similar level of recognition.

Busch, now 35, has spent the last 15 years growing and developing in NASCAR. He’s won races, a Sprint Cup Series championship, then fallen out of favor with two of the sport’s most elite teams and performed an incredible career comeback after two years in the wilderness.

Karam, 19, was all of 5 years old when Busch started his first Sprint Cup race in 2000. But since he was 8, Karam and his family went to the mecca of open-wheel racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, dreaming of the day when he’d have the chance to race in the ‘500.

Busch enjoyed sampling whatever he could get his hands on away from Cup – Michel Jourdain’s Champ Car in 2003, an NHRA Pro Stock car and an Australian V8 Supercar to name a few.

Karam progressed through the traditional Mazda Road to Indy ladder, winning championships in USF2000 and Indy Lights, and winning races in Star Mazda.

Together, they arrived at this year’s Indianapolis 500 both with rookie status, but with completely different agendas and operations to work with.

For Busch, a preliminary test in 2013 with Andretti Autosport was the first step toward a debut that could serve as a major media and marketing storyline.

For Karam, his 2013 offseason was one of trying everything he could to graduate to a full-time ride in IndyCar through the efforts of his family, his management and his support team. While that didn’t occur, he did catch the eye of Chip Ganassi, who signed him to a developmental driver contract.

Karam dazzled in two sports car starts at Daytona and Sebring, drawing praise from Ganassi and his pair of Target-backed Indy 500 winners and series champions, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

Ultimately Karam was able to put a deal together, in a one-off Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing Chevrolet that, while CGR-assisted, was almost entirely DRR-crewed. The car was the embodiment of the power of partnerships.

Karam had four unofficial teammates at CGR, plus CGR advisor Dario Franchitti; Busch had four actual teammates at Andretti Autosport.

Busch learned methodically; Karam learned rapidly and largely on his own, in the team’s first IndyCar start in a year.

They both had their one “Welcome to Indy, rookie,” moment.

Busch whacked the Turn 2 wall on the Monday before the race, and his No. 26 Suretone Entertainment Honda was trashed, requiring a backup car.

Karam had his on Carb Day when he lost it exiting Turn 4, but made an absolutely wicked save to hang onto his No. 22 Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Records/Brantley Gilbert Chevrolet from hitting either the inside retaining wall or the pit wall.

Karam starred during the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Competition, making it to the finals and stirring up the crowd with his celebrations.

In the race, both drove like veterans in avoiding the pitfalls that plagued so many others.

Karam made passes you wouldn’t expect many a veteran to try; Busch had catlike reflexes to avoid flying debris on two instances.

They both ended in the top 10, Busch in sixth and Karam in ninth, the two best drivers of a seven-pack of rookies that all finished the race.

While Busch was a first-timer on Sunday in IndyCar, Karam was a rookie. So giving just Busch the Rookie of the Year title doesn’t do justice to Karam’s effort all month.

It also opens up the Pandora’s Box where if a NASCAR driver comes into the Indianapolis 500 and does as well as Busch does, they could take the ROTY title almost by default.

What does that say for young drivers who come through the open-wheel ladder, traditionally, that they then have to battle NASCAR drivers to get the recognition for being the best standard first-timer at IndyCar’s most prestigious race?

Was Busch impressive all month? No question. But Karam’s efforts deserve the plaudits, as well.

We have a precedent for this, too, because in 2002 Alex Barron was the top finishing first-year driver in fourth, and Tomas Scheckter, who led the most laps, was the star attraction of the race before crashing off Turn 4. Both were awarded the co-ROTY honors.

In 2014, Busch was your top finisher, and Karam was the first-year star attraction.

But the voters got it wrong. Karam should have gotten a piece of the pie, as well.

Welcome surprise: Coyne announces Bourdais back for final 3 races

Photo courtesy Dale Coyne Racing (Kate Shoup photo)
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The talk for months since his injury qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was when Sebastien Bourdais would be back in his No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

The Verizon IndyCar Series season finale at Sonoma Raceway was a near certainty, with the penultimate race at Watkins Glen International also considered.

But in a welcome surprise that few if any saw coming, Bourdais’ return date to racing will actually come in this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Gateway Motorsports Park, back in the car with Esteban Gutierrez stepping aside.

Bourdais, who was officially cleared to drive as of Wednesday, August 16, by Dr. Geoffrey Billows, INDYCAR medical director, following his recovery from injuries sustained in a crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifications. following an evaluation by INDYCAR orthopedic consultant Dr. Kevin Scheid on Tuesday and was given clearance to fully return to racing activities.

He suffered multiple fractures to his pelvis and right hip in the incident, but made an incredible recovery from his injuries and is returning sooner than anticipated to take part in the final three races of the season.

Gateway marked the site of Bourdais’ first test with the team upon his return over the 2016 offseason and he also tested on the old surface again in May of this year, prior to the two weeks of running in Indianapolis.

His first time back in a car was in a one-day test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the day after the Honda Indy 200, with a successful bit of running.

Per Trackside Online, Bourdais was expected to run in a third Coyne car at the Sonoma season finale, but now Gutierrez has made way for this return on the 1.25-mile oval this year. The Mexican driver raced a total of seven events this season, the most number among fill-ins (James Davison and Tristan Vautier each raced once), and posted a best result of 13th in his oval debut at Iowa Speedway.

Bourdais, understandably, was thrilled with this news.

“You have no idea how excited I am to be getting back in the car this weekend and for the remainder of the season,” Bourdais said in a release.

“It’s been a long 14 weeks and I’ve worked very hard to get to this point. Following the crash, I had one goal in mind and that was to be back for Sonoma, and here I am getting back in the car with three races to go. It’s a bit unbelievable but I can’t wait to try out that new surface at Gateway this weekend!”

Both Gutierrez and team owner Coyne were gracious in their respective quotes, Gutierrez for the opportunity and Coyne for Gutierrez’s work.

Gutierrez could end up at a high-profile team in the 2018 IndyCar season, and is now working to solidify those plans.

“It’s been a very interesting few months for me getting to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series on the street circuits, road courses and especially ovals,” shared Gutierrez. “I want to thank the team and Dale Coyne for giving me this opportunity to gain this experience in view of a full-time program in the Verizon IndyCar Series next year. My goal was to learn as much as possible in order to be ready for 2018 where a new car will be introduced. This experience with the team will pay dividends next season.”

Coyne added: “It’s great to have Sebastien back, but I want to thank Esteban for the amazing job he did filling in for him these last few months. It wasn’t easy for him coming in and having never driven an Indy car, but he did a fantastic job especially on the ovals. For someone that had never driven on an oval track before Iowa in July, he impressed a lot of people including myself. Hopefully we get to work with him again in the future.”

NHRA: The Strip at Las Vegas expands to become 4-lane dragstrip

Photos courtesy Las Vegas Motor Speedway
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Like a casino player riding a hot streak, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will soon hold four of a kind in its hands.

LVMS and parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. officials announced Wednesday that The Strip has embarked on an ambitious construction program to expand the two-lane dragstrip to a four-lane facility.

The enhanced track will mirror that of its sister track, zMAX Dragway, across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

When completed, The Strip will hold the first four-lane drag race in the Western U.S. on April 4-6, 2018 with the DENSO Nationals.

 

“Four-wide drag racing has captured the interest of race fans and competitors at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway,” LVMS president Chris Powell said. “It’s exciting to give everyone on the west coast a chance to see what fans back east have experienced for several years now.

“Four-wide drag racing was the vision of our chairman, Bruton Smith, and our chief executive officer, Marcus Smith. They are two of the key reasons that NHRA drag racing has become one of the most popular forms of motorsports in the world.”

The NHRA is fully onboard with the track’s expansion.

“The excitement and sensory overload of four-wide drag racing is one of the most intense displays of motorsports in the country,” NHRA president Peter Clifford said. “We look forward to presenting the four-wide experience to the dedicated NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series fans in Las Vegas and the surrounding states.”

16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force and 3-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Antron Brown are both looking forward to going four-wide in Vegas.

Force won the first four-wide event at zMAX Dragway in 2010, while Brown is a two-time winner in four-wide competition there.

“I’ve got to give credit to Bruton Smith for investing in the sport of NHRA drag racing,” Force said. “His four-lane in Charlotte gave him two races, one with the two-lane in the Countdown (to the Championship playoffs) and then the four-lane in the spring.

“It only makes sense that when he designed his Vegas track, from day one he planned on four lanes. That will allow those two races to be even more successful. So, good for you Bruton, and thank you from all of us at John Force Racing.”

Added Brown, “It will be a lot of fun going to Las Vegas for a four-wide race. It will give our fans on the West Coast what the East Coast fans have had at Charlotte. It will be a real spectacle with four 11,000-horespower cars launching at the same time.

“That will shake Vegas down. It will be a really cool experience.”

The expansion of The Strip, which has begun, will not impact the Oct. 24-26 Toyota Nationals at The Strip.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

MRTI: New oval test awaits Indy Lights, Pro Mazda in Gateway

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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An unknown variable to two of the three Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series comes with this weekend’s races at Gateway Motorsports Park, the first and only oval for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the third oval for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this season (this race airs August 28 at noon ET on NBCSN).

NEW TRACK ON TAP

The only running for these two series here has been testing, first on the old surface earlier this year and then on the repaved surface a couple weeks ago.

Indy Lights has been to Gateway with both of its prior two iterations, under the Indy Pro Series nomenclature in 2002 and 2003 (won by Ryan Hampton in 2002 and Jeff Simmons in 2003) and four times before that under the old Indy Lights banner in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001.

Those winners included Lee Bentham (now Ed Carpenter’s spotter and the Ed Carpenter Racing driver coach), Shigeaki Hattori, now NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and the late Dan Wheldon, respectively.

Bell holds both the qualifying and race lap records at Gateway, 157.205 mph and 28.625 seconds (qualifying) and 157.043 mph and 29.113 seconds (race), set in 2000, but those records should be smashed on the repaved track and with the new car this weekend.

Pro Mazda makes its debut at the track this weekend with a 55-lap race. Indy Lights will go 75 laps around Gateway. Both races are Saturday evening, at 4:55 p.m. and 6 p.m. CT and local time.

TITLE TILT BREAKDOWN

Kyle Kaiser has chance to win Indy Lights title in Gateway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As the series heads into Gateway, the championship battle could end in one series while it’s all poised to continue in another one.

In Indy Lights, Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing had a nightmare weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but even so, is well-positioned to lock up this year’s title and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship that goes with it. He has a 42-point lead over both Colton Herta and Santiago Urrutia, 297-255, and will clinch the championship with one race still to go at Watkins Glen provided he leaves Gateway with a 34-point lead.

The maximum swing in points in a 15-car grid is 27 points from first to last, if a driver secures the maximum 33 points (30 for winning with one bonus point apiece for pole, most laps led, and fastest race lap) and the 15th-place finisher scores six points.

A top-five finish for Kaiser will ensure he has at least a 26-point lead over the field, regardless of what others do – he’d have 314 points and the most anyone else could get with the maximum would be 288. So, the odds still remain in his favor barring some extraordinary events.

If Kaiser does clinch this weekend, he’ll be the first to do so in Indy Lights prior to the season finale since Josef Newgarden in 2011, who did so by starting at Kentucky in that year’s penultimate race – he finished second to Stefan Wilson that day. Tristan Vautier and Sage Karam (Fontana), Gabby Chaves (Sonoma), Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) have all won the last five titles at the last race of the year, all in California.

Herta and Urrutia’s tie for second (255 points) sees them in a tightly bunched six-way battle for the runner-up spot. With Matheus Leist (249), Zachary Claman De Melo (243), Nico Jamin (242) and Aaron Telitz (233) could all stake their claim for second.

Anthony Martin leads Victory Franzoni at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Quite by contrast, Anthony Martin leads Victor Franzoni by only four points in Pro Mazda (259-255) and the battle between the Cape Motorsports and Juncos Racing driver figures to rage over the final three races. Pro Mazda has the oval this week, then two races at Watkins Glen to sort out that battle.

John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, sized up how the MRTI season has gone to date as the series heads into its final two weekends.

“You have ebbs and flows in the season. All three championships are far from being decided,” Doonan told NBC Sports. “The competition level is so intense. The new Tatuus USF-17 has woken some people up internationally as an option.

“Meanwhile I was saying to someone not long ago, the Pro Mazda car is 13 years old and the car has remained relevant that long. To see that car have a sweet swan song with two guys battling out for the title in this car has been great to witness.

“Indy Lights has been ridiculous too. Kaiser has a lengthy points lead, but it’s not done yet. With an oval and Watkins, with multiple races, it’ll be a battle down to the end.”

LOOKING BACK AT RECENT OVALS

Matheus Leist poses at the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights has its third oval this season and Leist, who hadn’t driven on an oval until this season but has instantly clicked with Carlin’s engineering team, somehow has the chance to sweep all three of them. The Brazilian teenager dominated at the Freedom 100 in Indianapolis and continued his midsummer run of form with a win from 10th on the grid at his first short oval in Iowa.

Looking back to last year, Kaiser won his first Indy Lights race on the Phoenix 1-mile oval, a track that’s been recently repaved, and a track he thinks will provide a proper comparison to Gateway. Otherwise it was Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport, Indianapolis) and Felix Serralles (Carlin, Iowa) who won last year.

In 2015, the first year of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda, there were also three winners in three ovals: Jack Harvey (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Indianapolis), Serralles (Belardi Auto Racing, Milwaukee) and Max Chilton (Carlin, Iowa).

Pro Mazda has not raced on an oval since Lucas Oil Raceway in May 2016, Pato O’Ward delivering the win for Team Pelfrey in dominant fashion. Weiron Tan swept the two Pro Mazda races in 2015 for Andretti Autosport at Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa.

It’s been since 2014, when Spencer Pigot won for Juncos at Milwaukee, that Pro Mazda last raced on a track one mile or longer. Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa are both under one mile. For the car that launched into then-Star Mazda in 2004, this race at the 1.25-mile Gateway track is the longest oval this car has ever raced on.

WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 12: Chad Boat, driver of the #84 Billy Boat Motorsports Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway on January 12, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Chad Boat, in a fourth Belardi Auto Racing entry, will at long last make his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race debut. He was meant to at the series’ last short oval race in Iowa but was ruled out, not medically cleared after an accident earlier that week.

Boat’s presence in the field makes it a 15-car Indy Lights field, which in turn opens up the option – however slim – that if Kaiser was to finish last and Urrutia, one of Boat’s three Belardi teammates, won and scored maximum points, could close the 42-point gap down to 15 points leaving Gateway.

For Boat, the 25-year-old son of past IndyCar veteran Billy Boat, the goal will be to gain experience as a short track, dirt track and part-time NASCAR veteran making a welcome entry into the series. He has tested at Gateway in advance of his debut.

While Boat increases the Indy Lights field by one, the Pro Mazda grid dips from 14 its last race at Mid-Ohio down to 10 cars.

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.