(Image courtesy Dodge and DriveSRT.com)

Could most powerful muscle cars ever made lead Dodge back to NASCAR?

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When Dodge left NASCAR after Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship (what better way to go out but on top, right?) in a Charger, company officials at the time left the door open to a possible return to the sport someday.

It could be a few years, maybe a decade or more. Then again, it may never happen.

But …

While there’s been absolutely zero news out of Dodge’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, about a potential return to NASCAR, other recent news could be construed that maybe something might be up.

After all, why would Dodge officially announce on the company’s 100th birthday this past Tuesday – not to mention release the testosterone-dripping video that can be seen at the bottom of this column – that it will begin production of and start selling the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hemi Hellcat sometime later this year?

Big deal, just a new and improved model of the Challenger, right?

Wrong. The new supercharged Hemi Hellcat Challenger is set to become the most powerful muscle car ever made, sporting a massive 707 horsepower motor under its hood.

For all you gearheads and wrench jockeys, I’ll repeat that: 707 mean and ornery horses under the hood.

Oh yes, and did we mention that the speedometer on the Hemi Hellcat Challenger might potentially reach as high as 200 mph, if the above illustration from one of Dodge’s websites (DriveSRT.com) is accurate?

That’s more raw power and potential high-end speed than the 700-hp Lamborghini Aventador, the 663-hp Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, the 650-hp Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the 580-hp Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 or the 505-hp Camaro Z28. It even makes the once 640-hp speed king Dodge Viper look like it’s an underpowered 40-year-old Chevy Vega or Ford Maverick.

In fact, the Hemi Hellcat is only about 140 or so horsepower shy of the kind of power churned out by a NASCAR Sprint Cup car on racetracks from Daytona to Fontana, and only about 50 horsepower less than motors that power Nationwide Series cars.

That kind of horsepower isn’t just fast, it’s – sorry, Kevin Harvick, we couldn’t avoid it – freaky F-A-S-T.

On Wednesday, more news from the Dodge camp came out when MotorAuthority.com posted a story and spy photos of the new 2015 Dodge Charger SRT – which also will likely carry the 707-hp Hemi Hellcat motor.

The point we’re making here is simple: why would Dodge go to all the trouble and multi-million dollars of expense in development and production costs of making the bat-out-of-hell-fast Challenger and Charger unless the company had some serious marketing plans for the future?

Like bringing both models to NASCAR.

Think about it: Ford redesigned the Mustang and Chevy brought back the Camaro, and where did they wind up at?

In the Nationwide Series, up against the outdated Camry.

And what have the Mustang and Camaro been for Ford and Chevy dealers?

Sales magnets, thanks in part to being raced in NASCAR competition, albeit in the NNS junior league than the major league Sprint Cup circuit. (And if the Challenger or Charger do return to NASCAR, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mustang and Camaro potentially move up to Sprint Cup as well.)

Even with gas around $4-plus per gallon, U.S. drivers still want as much raw speed and power as they can buy. That’s why the Camaro and Mustang are among the most popular American-made muscle cars on the market today.

Dodge would be foolish not to come back to NASCAR to tout its new cars.

Where else could the manufacturer race (and sell) these types of potent pony cars?

The Challenger and Charger wouldn’t fit in Formula One, IndyCar or sprint cars (unless you took off the top and the fenders to make them “open-wheelers,” which isn’t likely to happen).

Sure, the Challenger and Charger might work in sports car and road course racing, but NASCAR is a built-in market with all the infrastructure necessary to make the Challenger and Charger not only welcome, but successful almost right out of the box.

We can easily see the Challenger join the Nationwide Series ranks, perhaps as early as 2016. And we can also see the Charger return to the Sprint Cup fold maybe by 2017, if not 2016 as well.

Again, we can’t say it enough: that’s strictly speculation on our part. Dodge hasn’t said a word about what may just as easily wind up only being a dream that will never come true.

But if Dodge truly does have well-kept secret designs of returning to NASCAR, it had better start working pretty soon on a production program for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, which typically takes 12 to 18 months to develop and build (much like when Ray Evernham led Dodge’s return to NASCAR, joining the company in 1999 before the first Intrepid hit the racetrack in 2001, succeeded by the Charger in 2006).

Here’s another thing to consider: It’s believed that Richard Petty Motorsports has one more year remaining on its current deal with Ford (reportedly through 2015).

According to a Motorsport.com report in early May, team owner Richard Petty reportedly has already met with officials of Ford (to potentially extend RPM’s current deal), as well as Toyota (about potentially leaving Ford when RPM’s current deal is up).

“We’ve got to look at our team and look at our circumstances,” Petty said less than two months ago when asked what RPM’s future plans are.  “We’ve got to look and say, ‘Okay, what’s going to be the best for us right now, what’s going to the best for us two years down the road, what’s going to be the best for us five years down the road?’”

Petty added: “We’re out looking and seeing what all the factories have got laid out for their future to see if we can fit into any of that.”

But what if Petty were to be the magnet to bring Dodge back to NASCAR, particularly with his long and legendary history with the company and the Hemi during his own racing career from the late 1950s to early 1990s?

It makes sense.

Heck, it more than makes sense, it’s a no-brainer.

And if Petty were to lead the charge and return to the Dodge fold, there’s likely at least two or three other smaller teams that could be viewed as prospective candidates that might be convinced to switch from their current powerplants and chassis — especially if Dodge offers significant incentives.

Among those that come to mind as potential targets for Dodge: Furniture Row Racing, Front Row Motorsports, JTG Daugherty, maybe even a team like Michael Waltrip Racing. Even Richard Childress Racing was rumored to be interested in Dodge, according to a FoxSports.com report back in late January (Childress denied the rumor)

And what about Andretti Autosport, which has reportedly expressed interest in expanding its IndyCar base (it has also branched out into sports cars and rally cars, even Formula E racing) into NASCAR?

Think about the publicity and attention bonanza that would result if two of the biggest and most legendary surnames in motorsports history — Petty and Andretti — were to align under the Dodge umbrella.

Again, we can’t repeat this enough: Dodge has not said anything about coming back to NASCAR. We’re only speculating here.

But if you add two-plus-two, believe in conspiracy theories, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and think you’re good at connecting dots, if you were some of the top honchos at Dodge, wouldn’t you want to use NASCAR as a huge showcase for your technology with the upcoming high performance Challenger and Charger?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Spectator dies after accident on opening stage of Monte Carlo rally

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Officials have confirmed that a spectator has died following an accident on the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday night, the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon slid off the route towards the end of the 21.25 km stage between Entrevaux and Ubraye, with his car blocking the course.

Emergency services were quickly called when it emerged that a spectator had been hurt in the accident, with rally officials confirming later in the evening that the fan had died as a result of injuries sustained.

“The Automobile Club de Monaco regrets to advise further details following incident of the car #4 (Paddon/Kennard) in SS 1,” a statement from the rally organizers read.

“The spectator was transported by helicopter from the stage to hospital in Nice. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff, the spectator has sadly died.

“An investigation has commenced into the incident and all involved parties will provide assistance to the authorities.

“Everyone associated with the event extends their deepest sympathies and condolences to the families, friends and individuals affected.”

Hyundai issued its own statement soon after: “Hyundai Motorsport is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of a spectator during the opening stage of Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday evening.

“The incident occurred at the same time as the #4 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC of Hayden Paddon and John Kennard crashed into the mountainside, after the car hit a patch of black ice at the entry to a left-hand turn.

“The team and crew have pledged their full support to the event organisers and authorities to understand the full details.

“Hyundai Motorsport extends its condolences to the family, friends and individuals affected.”

The stage was cancelled following the incident, with the rally resuming on stage two later in the evening. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville currently leads by 7.8 seconds from defending world champion Sebastien Ogier.

Paddon’s car has been withdrawn from the remainder of the rally as a result of the incident on Friday.

Gateway secures deal with Bommarito Auto for IndyCar race sponsorship

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 9:  Bryan Herta drives his #27 Andretti Green Racing Honda Dallara during practice for the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson 250 at the Gateway International Raceway on August 9, 2003 in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park’s return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule will feature a two-year title sponsorship from Bommarito Automotive Group, it was confirmed on Thursday. The St. Louis Business Journal was first to report the news.

The largest auto dealer in St. Louis will see its name on the race, now titled the Bommarito Automotive Group 500. Gateway’s return comes on August 26 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), for its first IndyCar race since 2003.

“We are pleased to announce that Bommarito Automotive Group will join Gateway Motorsports Park in the production of our inaugural INDYCAR event as the title sponsor,” Curtis Francois, Owner and CEO of Gateway Motorsports Park, said in a release.

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Photo courtesy Gateway Motorsports Park

“This is a tremendous event for the St. Louis region and no one knows our town better than the folks at Bommarito. They are a progressive group, known for a high standard of quality and excellence. It’s the same standard of on-track action and family-friendly experience that we look forward to delivering with our landmark event.”

“We are excited to partner with Gateway Motorsports Park and the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said John Bommarito, President of the Bommarito Automotive Group. “When approached by Gateway about the return of INDYCAR to St. Louis, we felt it was important to have a major St. Louis company step forward and support the return of open wheel racing to the region.  We are extremely proud to be the title sponsor of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.”

Gateway will be the sixth and last oval race of the season, following earlier races in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa and Pocono.

Rahal wants to turn 2016’s unrealized potential into reality in 2017

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Graham Rahal likes to say “2016 was a year of tremendous potential.”

But it also was a year that some potential was not realized.

After a career season in 2015, when he finished fourth in the Verizon IndyCar Series and earning two wins and six podium finishes, Rahal slipped back slightly in 2016, finishing fifth with just one win and only four podiums.

So what does 2017 hold in store? If things go well for the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the tremendous potential of 2016 will morph into potential not only realized, but could result in the younger Rahal’s best year ever.

Rahal has the power, the car, the equipment and the personnel to make some major upward moves this year.

“We just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” Rahal said. “Obviously the cars aren’t really going to change at all (major changes are planned for 2018).

“I felt like speed-wise, our performance (in 2016) was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it’s pretty clear to see performance-wise, the team performed a lot better.

“However, we had a lot of things that just didn’t quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did. 2016 the bounces didn’t happen. We had to fight a lot harder, still managed to get a top-five finish in the championship.

“I think that I probably drove better last year than 2015. But hopefully the best is yet to come. As a driver you always have to be critical of where can you improve, where were mistakes, what did you kind of let go, you know, and where did you lose points.”

The 28-year-old Rahal is particularly focused on potentially following in his father’s footsteps of winning the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500.

In nine starts in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, the younger Rahal has just two top-10 finishes: third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. At the opposite end of the spectrum Rahal has four finishes of 25th or worse, including two last-place showings (2008 and 2014).

“We really need to improve at Indy,” he said. “That’s our main focus of everything this off-season. And also get a little bit of those breaks. You know, that’s kind of the goal. That’s what we feel like we need.”

The younger Rahal will also reunite for at least the Indianapolis 500 and probably more races with Oriol Servia, which should help upgrade Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s testing, race preparation and data sharing.

“Oriol is a clear plug-in for us,” Rahal said. “First of all, he’s a great guy. Second of all, he will help us. He’s going to help our performance at Indy. I can tell you that right now. And third, he’s been there so many times with the organization, he’s been in and out of the team a handful of times. He knows everybody. He’s been part of the team before. So it’s a clear fit.

“We need just a very experienced guy who can help lead us down the right path, and Oriol is going to be that guy.”

Interestingly, RLL had the opportunity to bring in a full-time second driver, but chose to go with the 42-year-old Servia in a limited number of races for now.

“There were several drivers who came to the team that wanted to run full season, had budgets to do it and everything else, and they were all turned away,” Rahal said. “The team is focused on making sure if there is the addition of a second car full-time, it has to fit the right environment.

“… We really are proud of the environment that we have, and so Oriol is a guy that fits that just perfectly and won’t upset the apple cart, so to speak. … He’s a great guy, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

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Kimi Raikkonen becomes ambassador for sport in Finland

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari walks in the Paddock before practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Ferrari Formula 1 driver Kimi Raikkonen was named as an ambassador for sport in Finland at a ceremony in Helsinki on Wednesday night.

Raikkonen won the F1 world championship with Ferrari in 2007, becoming the third Finn to achieve the feat following Keke Rosberg in 1982 and Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999.

Raikkonen was honored by Finnish prime minister Juha Sipila at an award’s ceremony, with Ferrari reporting that his presence at the event was kept secret until the last moment.

“I’m not that used to making formal speeches,” Raikkonen said, referring to his reputation for his monosyllabic nature.

“But I would like to wish all the best to the winners in every category, as well as those who missed out on the prizes this year.

“I would stress how important it has been in my case to have the support of my family and help from trustworthy colleagues and the people within the Ferrari team, with whom I have worked for so many years now.”

Raikkonen will return for a 15th season in F1 in 2017 – his seventh with Ferrari – as he looks to build on his sixth-place finish in last year’s drivers’ championship.