Fredrik Noren excited to join Honda Muscle Milk Motocross team at RedBud

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When Fredrik Noren’s van arrives at the track one final time this weekend at RedBud, he will officially be stepping into a whole new life – a life which may have seemed like a pipe dream until a few weeks ago.

Seeing a top rider sidelined for the season is always unfortunate, but sometimes it opens up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a hard-working, deserving rider. Such is the case for Noren, the privateer from Sweden who was signed by the Honda Muscle Milk team this week to fill in for Justin Barcia for the rest of the season.

If you’ve been following the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship closely this season, Noren’s promotion shouldn’t come as much of a shock. He has easily been the top privateer in the 450 Class, continually knocking on the door of the top-ten despite the lack of funding or factory support. Noren’s results have long been notable, but this year he is stronger than ever.

Noren opted to leave Sweden to come to the United States in 2011 and attempt to make a career for himself here but had to do so as a privateer, funding his own travel and expenses for nearly four full years.

“It’s been good,” Noren said of his privateer days. This year he has been traveling cross-country in a van to all the races. “I get to see a lot of the country. Not just the tracks.”

At the track, Noren, like most privateers, has been responsible for everything but has had one other important member on his team. He’s been receiving assistance in the pits over the years from his girlfriend, Amy.

“She knows how I work,” Noren said of Amy. “It’s nice, I feel really comfortable with her.”

Among Amy’s responsibilities at the track were packing Noren’s line at the starting gate, getting his goggles and washing the bike. On the mechanical side, Noren says he’s been fortunate not to have really had any major issues with the bike.

This past year, Noren took the time to ride his bike in the winter for the first time – a factor that he attributes his improved results to. He also claims he had more power in his bike this season after making a switch to KTM.

Despite some struggles in the Supercross season, Noren came out strong once the outdoor season began. Ever since a 29th-place finish in the opening moto of the season, he has scored points in all nine motos since then, highlighted by 12-13 moto results at Hangtown and 14-13 moto scores at High Point.

By the time High Point had wrapped up, Noren had caught the eye of the Honda Muscle Milk team, which was down a rider after Justin Barcia was ruled out for the remainder of the season with foot and ankle injuries.

“We started talking a little bit after High Point,” Noren recalled, “and obviously they were looking for a rider – everyone knew that. They asked me if I was interested, and I said ‘Heck yeah!’”

During the downtime between High Point and Tennessee, Noren had the opportunity to test the bike. “They wanted me to come try the bike out first, see how it worked,” Noren said. “So they flew me out to California.”

Although he had been on a KTM this season, Noren saw the Honda as a great fit for him. “I like the Hondas a lot,” he said. “It’s a bike that I liked in the past, it’s a really good bike and the people on the team are really cool people too. They’re really friendly.”

With the contract signed, Noren will officially join the team on Saturday. No more driving cross-country in a van, no more setting up his own bike after that – something that comes as a relief to the 22-year-old. “I can just kind of show up and race and don’t have to worry about my suspension being right or washing or driving or anything like that,” he said.

It’s tempting to set sky-high expectations for this year’s Cinderella story, but Noren knows that the first order of business is to get comfortable on the new bike. “This weekend now at RedBud, I haven’t really been riding the bike before now,” he said. “I hope that I’ll be where I’m at on my KTM, same spot. After that, I hope to be top-ten, but I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”

There are seven rounds left in the season, and top-ten finishes would not only be a great result for the Muscle Milk Honda team, they would also help the future prospects of Noren, who admits that he hasn’t really thought much about 2015 yet but knows that he wants to race the 450 Class in both Supercross and the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship.

“I don’t think it would be hard going back to the van life,” he said. “But it would be nice if I wouldn’t have to.”

To find out how Noren performs in his first opportunity with a factory team, tune in to the Red Bull RedBud National today. Coverage starts at 10:30 A.M. ET with the second practice session, followed by the pre-race show at 12:15 P.M. ET. Both are airing online exclusively on ProMotocross.com and NBC Sports Live Extra.  Live coverage of all four motos begins at 1 P.M. ET with the first moto in the 450 Class. Click here to watch the Live Extra stream.

NBC will also carry live television coverage of the final 450 Class moto at 3 P.M. ET. NBCSN will pick up the action at 4 P.M. ET with the final 250 Class moto.

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

Photo by Dana Garrett/IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

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Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

Hinchcliffe will donate brain to study race-related concussions to help safety of sport

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is well known throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series for his sense of humor.

He’s the kind of guy that keeps not just his own team loose, but also does the same for other teams and fans.

Even when he’s talking about a serious topic, he can usually be counted on interjecting at least one or two great one-liners.

Hinchcliffe was in his usual form during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while he joked at times, the underlying message he tried to get across was very serious and very poignant to all forms of motorsports.

Namely, concussions and concussion research.

Hinchcliffe went so far as to say that when he passes away, he’s ready to donate his brain to science so it can be studied, particularly for some of the impacts and resulting concussions he’s endured throughout his racing career.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent, absolutely, it’s a done deal,” Hinchcliffe replied when asked if he’d ever consider donating his brain.

He then added with a whimsy but serious reality, “If it can help, if it can be put to use, I’ve got no need for it at that point. Absolutely, I’d donate it to the cause.”

Hinchcliffe said he’s studied the topic of racing-related concussions in all forms of motorsports, particularly IndyCar and NASCAR.

The Canadian driver, who sat on the pole for last year’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, said he’s thought on occasions about the ramifications of concussions upon race car drivers.

But it was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that forced him to sit out the entire second half of last season that greatly increased the attention of a number of drivers across all forms of motorsports.

“Honestly, I think most guys would be in a similar situation,” Hinchcliffe said. “Dale’s (Earnhardt’s) situation, I think that was something that a lot of guys had never been asked.

“But as soon as it was brought up, it was a no-brainer.”

Hinchcliffe then grew embarrassed when he realized his verbal faux pas and apologized, but his message was still on-point.

“It’s a very easy decision for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “If we can do something now, especially with something we don’t need anymore (after dying) and it’s going to help benefit the future safety of our sport, then it’s an easy call.”

Hinchcliffe starts 17th in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Sunday’s race, a year after qualifying for the pole position.

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Vice President Mike Pence confirms Indy 500 visit

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INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence, the former Gov. of Indiana, will be “back home again” this weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

The slight difference, of course, is that his main residence is now in Washington, D.C. since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January.

Pence is a longtime fan and visitor of the race, so while he confirmed he’ll attend on Thursday, it will not be in any official capacity.

“The Vice President is a Hoosier, grew up here, and tweeted some photos. He will be here as a fan. There will be no official role for him at the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles on Thursday.

Rumors percolated on Wednesday he’d be in attendance. On Wednesday, Boles said IMS was in the process of preparing for Pence’s arrival from security and operational protocols.

“We have heard, as have all of you, that there is a possibility the Vice President of United States,” Boles said Wednesday. “We are not in position yet to confirm or deny yet; however I can tell you we are preparing for it. As soon as we know, we hope to know by end of the day tomorrow, we’ll have another one of these briefings.”

Indeed they have on Thursday. The only major change announced was that there will be no pedestrian traffic at Gate 4.

“The Turn 2 suites, just South of those suites is what we call Gate 4. Gate 4 will be closed to pedestrian traffic beginning tomorrow,” Boles said.