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Le Mans: Prototype stunners and spoilers

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Some classes are more wide open than others in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans field. Here’s a look at likely contenders for the overall win from LMP1 (well, one of seven cars) and the LMP2 class victory:

FULL ENTRY LIST

LMP1: Energy usage is the biggest key although outright pace is still very close between the three manufacturer entries. Toyota enters with a slight edge over Audi and Porsche.

  • Audi: Despite taking 12 of the last 14 Le Mans victories, Audi is not the favorite at this year’s race. A newish driving lineup across the board leaves Tom Kristensen, “Mr. Le Mans,” as the sole veteran with his nine career wins. The second car of Marcel Fassler/Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer has a pair of Le Mans wins and is poised for a bounce back; I’d rate the No. 2 just ahead of the No. 1 (Kristensen/Loic Duval/Lucas di Grassi) with the newish No. 3 finding their footing (Felipe Albuquerque/Marco Bonanomi/Oliver Jarvis) and looking for a podium.
  • Toyota: It feels like this is their year, in year three of the program, similar to Peugeot in 2009. Winners of the first two FIA World Endurance Championship races this year, and now with two years of Le Mans data to work off of, should be much better prepared for this go-around. Either the No. 7 or No. 8 would be a popular winner; there’s a Frenchman apiece in the driver lineup.
  • Porsche: Rare is it that Porsche isn’t considered a favorite for a race it’s entered in, either, but, it’s not the favorite at Le Mans. A pair of finishes and perhaps a podium finish would be an achievable goal; anything more than that is a bonus.

Rebellion Racing – God bless them – fight the fight as the sole LMP1-L privateer. With two new cars, merely finishing is the goal. For this year, anyway.

LMP2: Always the most wide-open class; odds are good a Nissan-engined car will win (with 13 of the 17 cars in class) but which one is a different question altogether.

  • G-Drive Racing: Two-for-two to open the FIA World Endurance Championship season, G-Drive’s No. 26 Morgan Nissan features the underrated superstar in Olivier Pla alongside the solid pair of Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal. A three-peat is possible but will be tougher to achieve in a 17-car field, compared to four or five cars in the first two races.
  • Race Performance: Here’s my top wild card entry: The No. 34 Oreca 03 Judd of Michel Frey, Franck Mailleux and Jon Lancaster was sixth at the Le Mans test day and are three very decent shoes paired with a Le Mans-tested car. A podium is possible here, if not more.
  • Signatech Alpine: Strong driver lineup of Oliver Webb, Nelson Panciatici and Paul-Loup Chatin and one of the best looking cars certainly with the blue No. 36 Alpine A450 Nissan.
  • Jota Sport, Greaves Motorsport: Another two cars in the “handy package” category, the Zytek Z11SN Nissan is spread across these three entries. Jota’s trio of Marc Gene, Harry Tincknell and Simon Dolan is a better bet for success in the No. 38 than either of the Greaves cars, although the No. 42 for Greaves will have plenty of eyes on it with 16-year-old Matt McMurry set to become the youngest driver in race history. The sister No. 41 is less likely to factor in as the only car with three first-time drivers.
  • Thiriet by TDS Racing, OAK Racing: The lineup of Tristan Gommendy, Ludovic Badey and Pierre Thiriet is a good one; my concern here is the team’s No. 46 is the new Ligier JS P2 chassis paired with a Nissan. Debut victories are a hard one to come by and I’m not convinced this car – or the other two Ligiers run by OAK Racing and OAK Racing Team Asia – will avoid the garage enough to stay in contention.
  • KCMG: The Hong Kong-entered team, now running an Oreca 03 Nissan, has a good car but an unproven driver lineup at Le Mans in Matthew Howson, Richard Bradley and Alexandre Imperatori. Fast enough, but will their car/heads last?
  • Murphy Prototypes: Another Oreca 03 Nissan bound to be quick but featuring an inexperienced lineup. Karun Chandhok may be able to push the other two debutantes, open-wheel veterans Nathaniel Berthon and Rodolfo Gonzalez.

Too many variables exist to me beyond these eight entries. Sebastien Loeb Racing has a pair of first-time drivers and is a first-time team; SMP Racing is a first-time team with too many gentlemen drivers; Larbre Competition and Newblood by Morand are likely to be weighed down by their gentlemen drivers; and Pegasus Racing makes up the numbers.

Lastly of course is the Garage 56 Nissan ZEOD RC, the electric prototype which seeks to run its first lap on all-electric power and be the first car in Le Mans history to achieve that feat. A race finish is unlikely, but experimentation is awesome.

NHRA: Leah Pritchett sets new quickest national elapsed time record

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Photo: Don Schumacher Racing
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Pomona Winternationals winner Leah Pritchett added to her incredible start to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, one she came in with high hopes with anyway, with a slightly bigger accomplishment:

She set a new national elapsed time record for a 1,000-foot distance in NHRA history.

Pritchett, who drives the Don Schumacher Racing-entered, Todd Okuhara-tuned Papa John’s Top Fuel dragster, ran a 3.658-second pass at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on Friday outside Phoenix during the first day of qualifying for this weekend’s Arizona Nationals. The speed was 329.34 mph.

Incidentally, both Pritchett and Courtney Force set unofficial best times in Top Fuel and Funny Car testing, also at Wild Horse Pass, earlier this month.

You could barely put a piece of cheese between Pritchett’s two times; her time at the test was 3.654 seconds, but because that’s a test it is not an official mark.

The previous official record in competition was a 3.671-second pass, which Steve Torrence set July 31, 2016 at Sonoma.

“To be behind the wheel of this machine that is constantly putting out time and time again fast numbers and quick numbers is, to be honest, a little bit difficult to comprehend,” Pritchett said, via NHRA.com. “It’s everything that dreams are made of. It’s almost too good to be true, but it’s not.”

For good measure, Pritchett’s teammate Tony Schumacher also eclipsed Torrence’s old mark with a side-by-side run to second at 3.667 seconds, and 323 mph and change in the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster.

Force led the Funny Car charts on the first day of qualifying, while Jason Line led Pro Stock. Both drivers drive Chevrolets.

Lest Force’s day be overshadowed, she set a record of her own. Force broke the track’s elapsed time and speed records during the opening session of qualifying for Sunday’s NHRA Arizona Nationals with a pass of 3.838 seconds at 332.67 mph.

Force lost to Matt Hagan in the Pomona finals while Line beat his KB Racing teammate, Greg Anderson, for the Pomona win.

Butterball, Andretti Autosport extension is all gravy

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Andretti Autosport and Butterball, a U.S.-based provider of turkey and poultry products, announced a new expansion of their partnership. The newly revamped agreement will see Butterball branding on all four Andretti Autosport entries in 2017.

“Butterball has been a great partner since 2014 and I’m really excited to have them on board again this year,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay. “They were with me when I won the Indianapolis 500 which was a really special moment for everyone involved. Hopefully we can bring them back into victory lane this year, not only at Indy, but throughout the season as well.”

The machines of Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, and Takuma Sato will feature branding just below the front suspension components. Per the announcement, the placement has created a new nickname for the assembly: “the Butterball Wishbone.”

“Butterball is extremely excited about our sponsorship with Andretti Autosport in 2017,” said Butterball CEO and President Kerry Doughty. “With the addition of the new Butterball Wishbone Sponsorship on all Andretti Autosport Indy cars for the 2017 season, we are expanding the tremendously successful relationship that began with Michael and Ryan in 2014 when we won the Indianapolis 500 in our first season.”

Butterball’s tenure with Andretti Autosport dates back to May 2014, shortly before Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed victory at the Indianapolis 500. Branding has been featured on Hunter-Reay No. 28 entry ever since.

Newgarden completes busy day in Detroit

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Photo: IndyCar
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Josef Newgarden’s media prowess and charisma was again in full display on Thursday during a series promotional efforts for June’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear.

Specifically, Newgarden was in town for Detroit Grand Prix night at that night’s Pistons-Hornets NBA game.

The day began with Newgarden visiting a handful of Detroit news media outlets, where his most notable venture involved duking it out with Pistons mascot Hooper.

The day continued with Newgarden exploring more of the city, and getting in touch with its rock ‘n roll history.

That, Newgarden ventured to The Palace of Auburn Hills to the big promotional event of day, Detroit Grand Prix night. There, Newgarden was greeted with his own Detroit Pistons jersey and even tried a couple of half-court shots at halftime. However, he did not make any, making it less likely he’ll pursue a basketball career when he decides to hang up his helmet.

For an additional recap Detroit Grand Prix night, visit The Chevrolet’s Detroit Grand Prix twitter @detroitgp.

Entry lists revealed for MRTI Spring Training in Miami

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Kyle Kaiser in Miami, 2015. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The first real good, if not final, looks at the season to come in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires come with next week’s Spring Training, which sees four total days of action at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for all three rungs of the ladder.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will run February 27 on Homestead-Miami’s 1.5-mile oval and March 2 on the 2.21-mile road course. Meanwhile the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series will run solely on the road course over two back-to-back days, February 28 and March 1.

Indy Lights’ field seems closest to being finalized from this group, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 still have some gaps to fill.

In one other bit, Mazda will announce the teams of competition for its Soul Red-liveried drivers this year, all of whom won Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships for their next step up this year. That’s why Aaron Telitz (Indy Lights), Anthony Martin (Pro Mazda) and Oliver Askew (USF2000) teams are listed as TBAs.

Anyway, quick notes:

Indy Lights (14 cars

All drivers on the Indy Lights entry list have been officially announced, and as noted, Telitz’s team is the only significant TBA of note. Car numbers are revealed for Zachary Claman De Melo and Matheus Leist at Carlin of 13 and 26 respectively, with the known in advance.

In terms of team breakdown, it’s four each at Carlin and Andretti Autosport (with Colton Herta’s No. 98 car an Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry), Juncos Racing and Belardi Auto Racing each with two official cars and Team Pelfrey the lone one-car entry.

Of the 14 drivers, the field is split exactly in half between seven veterans and seven rookies.

Questions from here are whether one or two more cars not at this test will join the grid at St. Petersburg and push the number back up. Since the debut of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the St. Pete weekend has had 13 cars in 2015 and 16 cars last year, with this one falling in the middle.

Pro Mazda (6 cars)

In what’s very much a survive-and-advance season for Pro Mazda in the final year with its existing car, a small batch of cars come from Team Pelfrey, World Speed Motorsports and the team TBA for Anthony Martin for this test.

Within a 20-to-30-plus, multiple-class series of racing, six cars for one class wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. But six on their own for an independent series is certainly an issue. The number simply has to grow by St. Petersburg to at least eight at a bare minimum, the low-water mark last year, with 10 a significant step forward at this rate (the series had 12 cars at St. Petersburg last year).

USF2000 (22 cars)

Quite by contrast, the new Tatuus USF-17 premieres in USF2000 with 22 cars at this test and the potential of more cars by St. Petersburg (the series had 26 starters last year with two additional withdrawals).

Six returning drivers join 12 rookies and four TBAs on this list, all split among 10 teams. Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay, initially announced as driving for Benik in 2017, is listed in a third Newman Wachs Racing entry for this test.