Patrick Dempsey

Le Mans: GTE Key News and Notes

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As the battle between the production titans raged on at the front of the field throughout the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race to win the GTE Pro and GTE Am classes was also very hotly contested.

Ultimately, the win in GTE Pro went to Ferrari’s AF Corse team with the No. 51 car, piloted by Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. However, the two lap margin of victory was rather generous following a supreme fight through the night between the No. 51, the No. 97 Aston Martin Racing car, and the No. 74 Chevrolet Corvette, with just three seconds separating the top three at points.

The AF Corse team managed to stay out of trouble, though, and led home the No. 73 Chevrolet Corvette of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. Last year’s class winner, the No. 92 Porsche Team Manthey car, completed the GTE Pro podium. Ferrari F1 driver and this year’s race starter Fernando Alonso took to Twitter to send his congratulations to the AF Corse drivers.

For Aston Martin, it was another difficult race at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The No. 97 was in the mix to claim class victory after Bruno Senna put in a superb overnight stint to lead ahead of Vilander and Tom Milner in the No. 74, with the latter eventually being classified in fourth place in class. Eventually, Aston Martin came unstuck again due to a loose steering pipe. Senna made his frustration clear on Twitter, but vowed to return in 2015 for a third shot at endurance glory.

In the GTE Am class, it was an emotional victory for the No. 95 Aston Martin Racing car. The all-Danish troupe of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier-Hansson and Nicki Thiim dominated proceedings to win just a year after their teammate, Allan Simonsen, died on lap two of the race. A late technical scare on the car threatened to hand the win to Porsche, but the team soon fixed the issue and brought the car home.

Patrick Dempsey’s third attempt at Le Mans did not go entirely to plan. The Grey’s Anatomy star put in a solid performance behind the wheel, but after setting his sights on a podium finish in the GTE Am class, fifth place will have come as a bitter disappointment for his No. 77 Porsche team and co-pilots Joe Foster and Patrick Long.

On the same weekend as the World Cup began, a former winner was trying his hand in the most famous motor race. Fabien Barthez played an instrumental part in France’s victory at the 1998 tournament, playing in goal, but was forced to settle for ninth place on his debut at Le Mans in the No. 58 Team Sofrev car alongside Anthony Pons and Soheil Ayari.

An honorable mention has to go to the No. 79 Prospeed Competition car, which was fored to switch to GTE Pro at the last minute due to the withdrawal of its bronze-rated driver. Despite only having two drivers, the car ran well to finish fifth in class with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Cooper MacNeil sharing duties behind the wheel.

Backing up its class victory in GTE Pro, AF Corse secured a podium finish in GTE Am with the No. 61 car finishing third behind the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche.

However, the early leader in the GTE Am class for AF Corse, the No. 81 car of Sam Bird, Stephen Wyatt and Michele Rugolo, got caught up in the incident between the No. 3 Audi and the No. 8 Toyota during the first rain shower on Saturday afternoon.

Just as it was a classic race at the front of the field in the LMP1 class, the GTEs certainly put on a show. The three GTE Pro cars dancing in the dark down the Mulsanne straight will remain as one of the greatest sights from this year’s race, and for the Danes in the No. 95 Aston Martin, this might just be the sweetest victory of all.

The FIA World Endurance Championship now begins its summer break, with the next round taking place at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin on the 20th September.

Andretti’s Indy Lights trio will test IndyCars at Watkins Glen

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Blackstock (51), Kellett (28) and Stoneman to test IndyCar. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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One of the MS Amlin Andretti FIA Formula E Championship drivers, Robin Frijns, had his first day in an IndyCar last week at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Next month, all three of the team’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers will have their first days in an IndyCar on August 11 at Watkins Glen International.

Dean Stoneman, Dalton Kellett and Shelby Blackstock will step into the No. 28 DHL Honda, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda and No. 27 Snapple Honda cars, respectively, for the test. The trio will share with the team’s full-season drivers, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti, while Alexander Rossi will have a full day in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda after also completing a Firestone test there in June.

_9SG4610-LStoneman, who seems determined to graduate into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2017, looks forward to now having an IndyCar outing to join his Formula 1 test for Williams.

“Can’t wait to get into Ryan’s car for the IndyCar test at Watkins Glen. To be there testing at an iconic US circuit will be great.” Stoneman said. “I have been watching the big guys all season so I’m going to enjoy finally testing one.

“I came to Indy Lights with a view of moving up to IndyCar, which has always been the goal that I’m working on for 2017, so the test will give everybody some indication of my ability. In 2010 I was invited to test Williams F1 car in Abu Dhabi and seemed to really impress everyone, so I’m hoping we can do the same sort of job with Andretti as I look to next year.”

Mazda Road to Indy veterans Blackstock and Kellett, meanwhile, will reach the pinnacle of the ladder with their first IndyCar test days. Blackstock has track experience of Watkins Glen in sports cars, albeit not on the repaved surface.

04CJ0415-L“I have a lot of history at Watkins Glen and it brings back a lot of great memories just saying the name,” said Blackstock. “Seven years ago I went to The Glen as part of the Jim Click’s Mustang Challenge team as a crew member. It was the first road course race I had ever been to and it was an eye opener. I did every job possible on the team in one weekend, but that’s where my journey at The Glen (and in racing) started.

“Over the years, I’ve been a crew member, raced Skip Barber and CTSCC (Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge) there and now several years later after entering the track for the first time, I finally get to do my first Indy car test there. Words can’t describe how excited I am for this opportunity to finally get to drive my dream car. This is my fifth year at Andretti Autosport after completing the entire MRTI (Mazda Road To Indy) program with them and now finally getting to test one of their Indy cars! I can’t thank Michael and Andretti Autosport enough for giving me this opportunity and I can’t wait to get on track!”

2B3A0687-LKellett added, “I am extremely excited for my first Indy car test and I am very grateful to do so with Andretti Autosport. There are going to be differences between the Indy Lights car and the Indy car for me to adapt to. I expect the biggest adjustments will be getting used to the braking and cornering performance.

“The Indy car is going to be much more physically demanding, but I have been training hard and I feel like I am prepared. I’m also looking forward to learning the pit procedures and feeling the increase in power. I haven’t raced or tested at The Glen so this will be a complete learning experience for me, with a new car and new track. I am happy to be able to learn from and work with Andretti Autosport for this amazing opportunity.”

Rosberg has “massive buzz” upon returning to Germany

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 20:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates in Parc Ferme after victory in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring on July 20, 2014 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Home race wins have become the norm for the Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates, with Lewis Hamilton having won the last three British Grands Prix dating to 2014 and Nico Rosberg winning the most recent German Grand Prix in 2014 at Hockenheim.

After its year off the calendar last year and with Rosberg needing a win to stop Hamilton’s recent surge of momentum, a home race return might be coming at the perfect time.

Rosberg lost the World Championship lead for the first time this year after coming second to Hamilton in Hungary last week, and would recapture it this weekend with a sixth win this year.

“It was disappointing to lose the race at the first corner in Hungary. But I was really happy with my pace all weekend, so that gives me good confidence moving forwards,” Rosberg said ahead of this week’s German Grand Prix.

“I’m happy to have the chance to get back in the car again so soon – and especially happy that it’s at my second home race,” he added.

Rosberg recently had the chance to sample one of Mika Hakkinen’s championship-winning Mercedes-powered McLarens a few weeks ago and he hopes that, along with Hakkinen saying earlier this year that Rosberg was “ready to win a World Championship,” will give him a home race boost.

“I had a fantastic day at Hockenheim a few weeks ago driving Mika Hakkinen’s championship-winning car. That really gave me a massive buzz to be back racing in Germany.

“Driving in through the circuit gates brought so many great memories – from my childhood days at the DTM with my Dad right through to winning the Grand Prix for myself in 2014.

“Hopefully I can repeat that this year for the fans and for everybody at Mercedes. After this race it’s a well-earned break for the team, too. I’ll be pushing flat out to give them the result they deserve before they get some time to recharge their batteries.”

Rosberg also recently signed a two-year extension with Mercedes through 2018.

DiZinno: Target’s IndyCar departure a stinging sign of the times

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One of the hardest parts to explain to people that aren’t racing junkies is that once you take the helmet off of drivers, they can often be personalities.

Yet one of the best ways companies can peel back the layer of these helmet warriors is to activate – and for most of its lifespan in the Verizon IndyCar Series, no company did that better than Target.

Which is why today’s news that Target is leaving IndyCar after 27 years leaves a simply giant void that no company will be able to fill – at least not immediately.

In the era of opulence in North American open-wheel racing, when activation was everywhere from retail companies, to cigarettes, to car manufacturers, it was as much a battle off track as it was on track.

You didn’t just have to have a superior product on-track, and that often depended on whether you had the right “package” of chassis, engines and tires.

No, you also had to showcase your drivers in commercials, stores or print advertisements in any way you could.

Photo: Getty Images Arcives
Photo: Getty Images Archives
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First Ganassi title in 1996. Photo: Getty Images Archives

And for about a four-year period from 1996 (the year of Ganassi’s first title and the split) through 1999 – my formative years as a racing fan that eventually helped lead me into the role I have today – no company did that better than Target.

Yes, there were the Andrettis selling you Texaco and Havoline for your car, but when you’re 6 or 7 years old, you’re not exactly thinking about oil changes. Yet, anyway. Same with Shell (Team Rahal) and Pennzoil (Jim Hall Racing).

Cigarettes? I knew the Marlboro Team Penske cars looked cool, but I also knew I never wanted to have anything to do with smoking one of those bad boys. Same goes for Player’s despite their cool blue cars, Hollywood and its eye-popping multicolor scheme featuring Brazilian drivers, and eventually, the Team KOOL Green cars.

Beer? Despite being a connoisseur now, again, when you’re 6 or 7, you’re not thinking about chugging Miller Lite or Budweiser. And as an informed beer drinker who prefers craft and microbreweries anyway, you’re still not thinking about drinking either product.  I do miss the old Budweiser frogs and lizards, though…

Telecommunications? LCI and MCI were on cars before cell phones had even taken off.

Other B2B-type sponsorships – the Hogan Truck Leasing, Alumax Aluminum and the like – didn’t make sense to me at the time although those type sponsorships are the ones that are commonplace today.

Zanarid and Vasser in 1998.
Zanardi and Vasser in 1998. Photo: Getty Images Archives

So almost by process of elimination but also through the series of engaging, often humorous and mega TV spots, I discovered Target – by way of Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi.

It was engaging. It was relatable. And it was reliable.

The banter these two had – whether it was joking about picture sizes, racing motorhomes around Gateway, introducing flags or Zanardi explaining how he “passed” his driver’s test – was unparalleled and served as a perfect compendium to the races I was watching.

“Look,” younger me thought as I’m watching the CART race from wherever it was that weekend, say a Detroit, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto or Road America. “Here’s the guys I’m watching on the TV, and now they’re joking with each other in the commercials breaks. I like these guys!”

As my Dad and I headed to races on the West Coast like Fontana (now Auto Club Speedway) and Long Beach, the goal was simple: buy Target-branded merchandise and root for the Target cars during the race.

That made it a damn sight unfortunate when after Zanardi had clinched his 1997 CART title, his first of two in a row, my Dad had purchased a “Donuts, not just for breakfast!” T-shirt that weekend to pay tribute to Zanardi’s winning trademark. Except Zanardi got hurt during the weekend in a practice crash and didn’t even get to race!

Arie Luyendyk got drafted in last-minute and the “flying Dutchman,” the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and current INDYCAR Race Steward, got taken out by Arnd Meier in the race.

But my quest to meet Zanardi would not go unfulfilled. At Long Beach, 1998, I’m now 8 and I’ve staked out the Target paddock – autograph achieved. Zanardi then promptly delivered one of his best wins ever, coming back from a lap down to win the race, after making another move on the guy he always seemed to make incredible moves on – Bryan Herta. A then-unheralded Dario Franchitti scored his first career podium that day too, in second…

That day, I saw my favorite driver growing up finally do those donuts.

When Juan Pablo Montoya entered in 1999, the change was notable. And Montoya – who I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know much better now in covering the series full-time – was a different force then.

He was – and still is – a ridiculously focused driver with surreal car control. But he wasn’t the same as Zanardi outside of the cockpit, and despite the infamous/famous Vasser and Montoya “snipe!” ad they put together, there never felt the same bonding to me growing up.

The Target drawdown in TV ads began about 2000, when Ganassi’s fortunes began to shift as a team.

The previously dominant Reynard/Honda/Firestone package was tossed aside for Lolas and Toyotas. Gone were Vasser and Montoya, and in were the then unknown Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian and Memo Gidley. Kenny Brack and Scott Dixon joined in 2002. The team switched series in 2003, and despite Dixon winning the 2003 Indy Racing League title, there was never the feel that Target had the same motivation for activation.

Yet even through those rough Toyota years of 2004 and 2005 – Dixon recently recalled to me at Iowa that in 2005 at Milwaukee, they wrote off several cars and driver Darren Manning got canned – Target endured.

Target has continued with Ganassi through open-wheel’s rough patches, as noted above. They were always on par with Marlboro as one of the two most well-known sponsors in the sport through the needed open-wheel merger of 2008, and became the pre-eminent sponsor in the sport when new tobacco restrictions forced Marlboro colors off the Team Penske cars at the end of 2009.

Target continued. Still. And from 2008 to 2011, they won four titles in a row – again – a feat they did together from 1996 to 1999.

And yet now, when it feels as though IndyCar racing is back on something of an upswing, with Dixon and Ganassi serving as ambassadors for the company because you know every single race that Dixon is a threat to win as one of the greatest drivers of his generation, is when Target pulls the plug, owing to a change at the top of the company.

Signs have been evident and building, though, that this day would eventually come.

Target scaled back from two cars to one in the last couple years, and then this year they brought back the famous “lightning bolt” at the start of this year. Yes, it pays tribute to the past but in hindsight, it felt like a move that signaled the beginning of the end.

The departure comes because the new people in charge of overseeing the marketing programs don’t see the ROI and value in IndyCar racing today, plain and simple.

And despite recent small upticks in TV numbers the last two or three years, this is a legacy departure that comes as a result of the 12-year split through 2008 and the lack of value that has persisted in the interim years, especially in comparison to NASCAR.

The NASCAR sponsorship continues for one more year at least anyway because even though Kyle Larson usually finishes in the teens and 20s, he’s being seen by 5 million people – as was witnessed with Sunday’s Brickyard 400 – whereas IndyCar fans are pleased if a cable broadcast today can reach 500,000-plus. Dixon wins races, Larson wins eyeballs.

Here’s where this really stings: in appealing to my generation – the 20- or 30-somethings who maybe got hooked on racing, like me, in the 1990s, who have only known IndyCar racing with Target Ganassi entries.

We grew up with Target Ganassi cars as part of our identity, as something to root for, as something to get behind.

We knew that through thick and thin, whatever construct North American open-wheel racing would be, we knew there’d be at least one, but usually two, Target Chip Ganassi Racing entries.

Dixon and Ganassi will continue but without the company that’s served them both the longest.

It’s more than just a void on the sidepods that needs to be filled.

St. Pete 2017 is gonna be weird.

Target confirms exit from IndyCar at end of 2016 season

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet IndyCar during practice for the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Target has confirmed it will end its 27-year run with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, the longest team/sponsor relationship in North American open-wheel racing, on Wednesday.

The decision, first reported by the Associated Press although rumors of which have been swirling throughout the year, particularly in recent weeks, will see Target end its sponsorship of Scott Dixon at the end of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. A team spokesperson confirmed the news to NBC Sports as well.

Recent management changes within the company have driven this decision, although the AP report indicated and the team confirmed Target will continue with Kyle Larson’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series program through 2017.

“It’s the greatest sponsor in racing, ever.  They’ve been nothing but good to me,” Ganassi said in a team-issued quote. “They developed me personally and professionally. I’ve developed lifelong friends and relationships.  It is unfortunate they will be leaving the IndyCar Series but rest assured that the No. 9 Chevrolet and the reigning IndyCar Series Champion Scott Dixon will still be in the IndyCar Series next year and beyond, the car will just have different colors on it.  We are working through some of those options now.

“Also, we are happy they will remain in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Kyle Larson and the No. 42.  I understand things change and people have different marketing efforts. It’s one of the longest running sponsors in racing and they delivered for me and the team, and the team delivered for them.”

Dixon, Ganassi’s longtime stalwart driver, has driven a Target-sponsored car since 2002 when he joined the team midseason and won four championships.

“I can’t thank Target enough for their partnership on and off the track over the years,” Dixon said in a quote released by the team.

“They have been with the INDYCAR team for an amazing 27 years, which is unheard of in professional sports, and on the car I’ve driven for the past 15 seasons. I have nothing but great memories and much thanks for Target being great partners for so long. I’m looking forward to being in the 9 car for years to come and fighting for more wins and championships with Chip and the team.”

Target first joined the team in 1990 and while it was a presence on Ganassi cars for its first six years through 1995, in 1996 when the team shifted to an all-red livery with the yellow lightning bolt – a paint scheme which was brought back for the start of the 2016 season.

Together, Ganassi and Target have won 11 championships and four Indianapolis 500s. Champions for the team include its first champion, Jimmy Vasser, then Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dixon and Dario Franchitti.