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Motocross: What to watch for today at Thunder Valley

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If anyone is going to emerge as a first-time winner today, they’ll not only have to battle the dominant Red Bull KTM and Star Yamaha teams, they’ll also have to contend with some challenging conditions.

The Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship is at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado for the third round of the 12-stop series. This race brings a unique element to the championship race – at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet above sea level, bikes are robbed of horsepower, and riders get winded much easier. In order to overcome these elements, riders must be in peak physical condition, and they must have a team behind them capable of making the necessary adjustments to coax as much power out of their bikes as possible.

Riders will be tested as soon as the gate drops in each race. The very first thing they’ll have to deal with is an uphill straightaway where power will be especially important. Starts are one of the most important elements motocross – if you don’t get a good one, working your way up to a podium position is a longshot.

Add this to the fact that the Red Bull KTM duo of Ryan Dungey and Ken Roczen has dominated the 450 Class, while the Yamalube/Star Racing/Yamaha sophomores Jeremy Martin and Cooper Webb have been running away from the field in the 250 Class, and it’s going to be a tall order for any other rider to capture their first win of the season.

For a look at the uphill start and all the other features riders will encounter today, check out an animated preview of the track layout below:

Live coverage from Thunder Valley begins at 12:30pm E.T. with the second practice session, available on ProMotocross.com and NBC Sports Live Extra. Coverage resumes with the online-only pre-show at 2:15pm E.T., followed by all four motos streaming live online from 3-7pm E.T. NBCSN will also carry live coverage of the second motos in both classes at 5pm E.T. Click here to access the Live Extra stream.

Here’s a few storylines to keep an eye on as you watch today’s races.

450 Class

Justin Barcia (4-5 at Hangtown): Currently sixth in the 450MX points standings, the Honda Muscle Milk rider is out for today’s race with foot and ankle injuries.

James Stewart (5-3 at Hangtown), Trey Canard (3-4 at Hangtown), Brett Metcalfe (6-9 at Hangtown): If anyone is going to top Roczen or Dungey this week, these three have the best chances to do it. Stewart’s results have steadily improved with each moto, Canard has been consistently fast, and Metcalfe led a few laps a week ago at Hangtown.

Weston Peick (8-6 at Hangtown): It feels like it’s only a matter of time before Peick records a top-five overall finish. In his first season riding on a factory team, Peick has done well but needs better starts in order to elevate himself into that next tier. His best position after Lap 1 of any moto this year is tenth.

Josh Grant (9-39 at Hangtown): After winning the first moto of the season, Hangtown wasn’t the encore Grant was looking for. He was hampered by a bad start in Moto 1 last weekend, then had bike issues and twisted his ankle in Moto 2. Thunder Valley may help provide a better idea of what to expect going forward.

250 Class

Jessy Nelson (7-5 at Hangtown): Martin and Webb are the biggest surprises in the 250 Class, but Nelson has been quite a revelation too, quietly working his way up to fourth in 250MX points after a career-best fifth-overall finish at Hangtown. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that he’s done it without getting good starts – something that he’s proven capable of in the past. If he puts it all together, he could go down as one of the most improved riders not on a blue bike.

Blake Baggett (6-34 at Hangtown): After two rounds, Baggett sits 52 points back of Martin in the championship race. There’s still a long season ahead, but the 2012 champion already has a lot of ground to make up. To put it in perspective, Martin could DNF both motos at Thunder Valley, Baggett could sweep both motos, and the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki rider would still find himself two points back of Martin.

Jackson Richardson (21-9 at Hangtown): Richardson is a full-fledged privateer from Australia who always seems to turn in solid results when he races in the U.S, and his most recent success was a ninth-place finish in Moto 2 last weekend. Thunder Valley could mark his last Lucas Oil Pro Motocross race of the season before he goes back to Australia though. Can he get one more impressive result under his belt before heading home?

Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.