Ageless John Force powers to 140th career NHRA Funny Car win, first ever at Norwalk

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Having just turned 65 two months ago, John Force shows no signs of slowing down.

The record-holding 16-time and reigning NHRA Funny Car world champion captured his 140th career victory in Sunday’s finals of the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Also winning in their respective classes were Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Erica Enders-Stevens (Funny Car) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Force and fellow veteran racer Ron Capps gave fans a great show in a close final round. Force covered the 1,000-foot drag strip in 4.113 seconds at 317.27 mph, while Capps did so in 4.135 seconds at 305.56 mph.

It was Force’s second win in the first 13 races this season and his first win ever at the Norwalk track, located between Toledo and Cleveland.

“It was special to me,” Force said in a NHRA media release. “I’ve come to this track for decades. I’ve won here at the Night of Fire races. Robert [Hight] and my daughter Ashley [Force Hood] have won here. I keep coming back here.

“The Bader family (track owners) is P.T. Barnum doing this year-round, 90-some race a year. They light the fire under those fans. Look at the crowd on Friday night and that whole fireworks show. I’ve been real lucky in my career and you want to win them all, but I really wanted this win.”

Hight, who is Force’s son-in-law and also president of John Force Racing, remains atop the Mello Yello Funny Car points standings, but with Sunday’s win, Force continued his climb upward, now sitting in second place. Capps, meanwhile, is a close third.

“It’s a really great show, and I’m just excited to be a part of it,” Force said. “We raced some great kids: Capps, Cruz (Pedregon), (Tim) Wilkerson, Chad Head. We gave them some good racing. Hey, we got the win. I’m just glad to get that one out of the way. Now I’ll try to get my second win here.”

In Top Fuel, Brown (3.797 seconds at 318.84 mph) continued his red-hot ways. Having won last week at Joliet, Illinois, Brown revved through the field to win again Sunday, defeating No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon (4.982 seconds at 155.52 mph) in the final round.

“It’s been a true blessing to be out at this racetrack this weekend,” Brown said. “The Bader family really put on a great show. The racetrack was great all weekend long. We got some cloud cover today. When four cars can run 3.75 in the first round with other cars across the board at .76, .77, that shows you how competitive the Top Fuel class is right now. It’s crazy tough to win a round right now, let alone a race.”

Brown remains second in the Top Fuel standings, while Langdon moved into third. Doug Kalitta remains the points leader.

In Pro Stock, No. 1 qualifier Enders-Stevens (6.632 seconds at 210.14 mph) dominated throughout the weekend en route to her unprecedented fourth win of the season and 10th of her career, defeating her former crew chief-turned-driver Dave Connolly (6.665 seconds at 207.56 mph) in the final round.

“You can’t think about any of the negative things when you get into a 215-mph race car and I was able to do that today,” Enders-Stevens said. “At the end  of the day we came out on top and that’s all that matters.”

With her 10th win, Enders-Stevens becomes only the third female racer in NHRA history to reach double digits in wins. Angelle Sampey is No. 1 (41 wins), followed by legendary racer Shirley Muldowney (18).

“Shirley [Muldowney] is a legend and a mentor and Angelle is also a friend who lives a few miles from me,” Enders-Stevens said. “Those are two extremely talented ladies who are passionate about our sport. They broke down barriers so we could all do what we enjoy doing out here. It’s great to have my name on that list.”

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hines (6.901 seconds at 193.96 mph) earned his third win of the season, defeating Hector Arana, who made his second straight final round appearance but is still seeking his first win since 2009.

“Today, we learned exactly what we need to do,” Hines said. “We started treating it differently than in years past. Instead of slowing on Sunday my bike actually picked up. Hopefully, that’s bad news for the competition and we could continue on a roll. There is no time to sit back and relax.”

Lastly in Pro Modified, Troy Coughlin (5.940 seconds at 250.92 mph) defeated Von Smith (5.920 seconds at  243.99 mph).

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series takes next week off before beginning its noted three-race “Western swing,” July 18-20 in the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver, Colorado.

 

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FINAL RESULTS:

Top Fuel — Antron Brown, 3.797 seconds, 318.84 mph  def. Shawn Langdon, 4.982 seconds, 155.52 mph.

Funny Car — John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.113, 317.27  def. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.135, 305.56.

Pro Stock — Erica Enders-Stevens, Chevy Camaro, 6.632, 210.14  def. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.665, 207.56.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.901, 193.96  def. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.924, 195.53.

Pro Modified — Troy Coughlin, Chevy Corvette, 5.940, 250.92  def. Von Smith, Chevy Camaro, 5.920, 243.99.

 

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FINISHING ORDER (1-16):

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown; 2.  Shawn Langdon; 3.  Tony Schumacher; 4.  Troy Buff; 5.  Brittany Force; 6.  Doug Kalitta; 7.  Steve Torrence; 8.  Pat Dakin; 9.  Spencer Massey; 10.  Richie Crampton; 11.  Khalid alBalooshi; 12.  Larry Dixon; 13.  Terry McMillen; 14.  Clay Millican; 15.  Bob Vandergriff; 16.  J.R. Todd.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  John Force; 2.  Ron Capps; 3.  Cruz Pedregon; 4.  Jack Beckman; 5.  Matt Hagan; 6.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 7.  Del Worsham; 8.  Chad Head; 9.  Alexis DeJoria; 10.  Bob Tasca III; 11.  Tim Wilkerson; 12.  Tony Pedregon; 13.  Jeff Diehl; 14.  Courtney Force; 15.  Jeff Arend; 16.  Robert Hight.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Erica Enders-Stevens; 2.  Dave Connolly; 3.  Allen Johnson; 4.  Chris McGaha; 5.  Shane Gray; 6.  Jeg Coughlin; 7.  Jonathan Gray; 8.  Vincent Nobile; 9.  Jason Line; 10.  Greg Anderson; 11.  Rodger Brogdon; 12.  Shane Tucker; 13.  Larry Morgan; 14.  John Gaydosh Jr; 15.  Mark Hogan; 16.  Travis Mazza.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Andrew Hines; 2.  Hector Arana; 3.  Adam Arana; 4.  Steve Johnson; 5.  Angie Smith; 6.  Jim Underdahl; 7.  Chaz Kennedy; 8.  Eddie Krawiec; 9.  Hector Arana Jr; 10.  Matt Smith; 11.  John Hall; 12.  Shawn Gann; 13.  Scotty Pollacheck; 14.  Elvira Karlsson; 15.  Michael Ray; 16.  Jerry Savoie.

PRO MODIFIED: 1.  Troy Coughlin; 2.  Von Smith; 3.  Rickie Smith; 4.  Pete Farber; 5.  Kevin Fiscus; 6.  Danny Rowe; 7.  Steve Matusek; 8.  Mike Janis; 9.  Eric Latino; 10.  Gary Capano; 11.  Bob Rahaim; 12.  Clint Satterfield; 13.  Bill Glidden; 14.  Mike Castellana; 15.  Kenny Lang; 16.  Steven Whiteley.

 

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL:

ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.772, 328.06 def. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.786, 324.59; Steve Torrence, 3.780, 327.11 def. Larry Dixon, 3.801, 325.45; Pat Dakin, 3.829, 320.28 def. Bob Vandergriff, 4.159, 289.69; Shawn Langdon, 3.759, 324.44 def. Terry McMillen, 3.884, 325.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.752, 327.51 def. Richie Crampton, 3.779, 323.35; Antron Brown, 3.756, 324.67 def. Clay Millican, 4.038, 241.58; Troy Buff, 3.834, 312.50 def. J.R. Todd, 6.795, 96.38; Brittany Force, 3.753, 329.83 def. Spencer Massey, 3.778, 326.95;

QUARTERFINALS — Buff, 4.689, 190.27 def. Dakin, 11.648, 69.71; Brown, 3.824, 320.89 def. Torrence, 4.527, 186.67; Langdon, 3.786, 327.51 def. Force, 3.866, 305.56; Schumacher, 3.847, 317.42 def. Kalitta, 4.224, 236.26;

SEMIFINALS — Brown, 3.793, 320.89 def. Schumacher, 5.171, 144.41; Langdon, 9.866, 80.36 def. Buff, broke;

FINAL — Brown, 3.797, 318.84 def. Langdon, 4.982, 155.52.

 

FUNNY CAR:

ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.104, 315.19 def. Courtney Force, Ford Mustang, 4.439, 209.95; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.094, 311.77 def. Tony Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.258, 258.91; Del Worsham, Camry, 4.072, 317.64 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 4.295, 282.78; John Force, Mustang, 4.080, 317.72 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.199, 261.57; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.059, 316.90 def. Jeff Arend, Charger, 11.685, 70.73; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.167, 304.25 def. Robert Hight, Mustang, DQ; Chad Head, Camry, 4.075, 316.30 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.090, 309.77; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.075, 315.49 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.145, 312.86;

QUARTERFINALS — C. Pedregon, 4.109, 307.58 def. Johnson Jr., 4.141, 312.06; Capps, 4.130, 309.42 def. Hagan, foul; Beckman, 4.181, 305.91 def. Worsham, 4.476, 226.01; J. Force, 4.217, 279.21 def. Head, 4.755, 181.76;

SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.126, 311.34 def. Beckman, 4.169, 309.84; J. Force, 4.149, 290.88 def. C. Pedregon, 4.150, 306.53;

FINAL — J. Force, 4.113, 317.27 def. Capps, 4.135, 305.56.

 

PRO STOCK:

ROUND ONE — Jonathan Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.619, 209.98 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.591, 210.83; Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.590, 210.08 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.595, 210.64; Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.587, 210.47 def. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.603, 209.75; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.590, 210.31 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.623, 209.82; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.615, 209.79 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Pontiac GXP, 6.684, 207.62; Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.571, 211.10 def. Mark Hogan, GXP, 6.754, 205.88; Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.570, 211.39 def. Travis Mazza, Ford Mustang, 12.297, 71.93; Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.589, 210.73 def. Larry Morgan, Mustang, 6.671, 209.30;

QUARTERFINALS — McGaha, 6.621, 209.52 def. Nobile, 7.026, 158.89; Johnson, 6.609, 209.92 def. Coughlin, 6.658, 209.17; Connolly, 6.607, 209.85 def. S. Gray, 6.597, 210.50; Enders-Stevens, 6.593, 211.06 def. J. Gray, 6.660, 209.33;

SEMIFINALS — Connolly, 6.883, 209.10 def. Johnson, 11.306, 81.45; Enders-Stevens, 6.601, 211.20 def. McGaha, 18.030, 46.32;

FINAL — Enders-Stevens, 6.632, 210.14 def. Connolly, 6.665, 207.56.

 

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:

ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.985, 191.95 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 23.502, 24.78; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.896, 193.35 def. John Hall, Buell, 6.923, 191.46; Adam Arana, Buell, 6.913, 194.30 def. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.911, 193.96; Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.905, 192.14 def. Michael Ray, Buell, foul; Hector Arana, Buell, 6.958, 195.42 def. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.926, 194.13; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.905, 195.34 def. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.873, 196.13; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.897, 195.68 def. Elvira Karlsson, Suzuki, foul; Angie Smith, Buell, 6.910, 194.66 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.979, 192.77;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson, 6.988, 191.43 def. A. Smith, 6.986, 192.11; H. Arana, 6.970, 194.49 def. Kennedy, foul; A. Arana, 7.006, 183.94 def. Krawiec, 7.041, 179.06; Hines, 6.892, 193.35 def. Underdahl, 7.000, 192.91;

SEMIFINALS — H. Arana, 6.894, 196.10 def. A. Arana, 6.960, 194.91; Hines, 6.950, 193.13 def. Johnson, 6.991, 191.46;

FINAL — Hines, 6.901, 193.96 def. H. Arana, 6.924, 195.53.

 

PRO MODIFIED:

ROUND ONE — Von Smith, Chevy Camaro, 5.923, 241.37 def. Bob Rahaim, Camaro, 5.972, 240.51; Steve Matusek, Camaro, 5.974, 245.90 def. Bill Glidden, Ford Mustang, 6.042, 230.33; Kevin Fiscus, Mustang, 5.932, 250.09 def. Clint Satterfield, Pontiac Firebird, 6.022, 242.02; Danny Rowe, Camaro, 5.907, 246.62 def. Kenny Lang, Camaro, 6.224, 196.59; Pete Farber, Dodge Daytona, 5.909, 247.75 def. Mike Castellana, Camaro, 6.045, 215.51; Mike Janis, Camaro, 5.983, 244.92 def. Gary Capano, Chevy Corvette, 5.966, 237.34; Troy Coughlin, Corvette, 5.952, 249.16 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.933, 244.12; Rickie Smith, Camaro, 5.909, 246.57 def. Steven Whiteley, Camaro, 14.106, 76.42;

QUARTERFINALS — Coughlin, 5.950, 249.63 def. Janis, 6.599, 167.84; R. Smith, 5.918, 247.07 def. Fiscus, 5.916, 250.97; Farber, 5.974, 246.93 def. Matusek, 6.011, 244.16; V. Smith, 5.939, 241.24 def. Rowe, 5.929, 247.57;

SEMIFINALS — V. Smith, 5.911, 242.76 def. Farber, 8.541, 107.29; Coughlin, 5.940, 250.32 def. R. Smith, 5.946, 245.94;

FINAL — Coughlin, 5.940, 250.92 def. V. Smith, 5.920, 243.99.

 

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POINTS STANDINGS:

Top Fuel: 1.  Doug Kalitta, 1,130; 2.  Antron Brown, 1,082; 3.  Shawn Langdon, 938; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 785; 5.  Spencer Massey, 780; 6.  Steve Torrence, 747; 7.  Brittany Force, 690; 8.  Khalid alBalooshi, 652; 9.  Richie Crampton, 626; 10.  J.R. Todd, 593.

Funny Car: 1.  Robert Hight, 1,067; 2.  John Force, 889; 3.  Ron Capps, 846; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 845; 5.  Alexis DeJoria, 779; 6.  Courtney Force, 764; 7.  Del Worsham, 748; 8.  Matt Hagan, 739; 9.  Cruz Pedregon, 726; 10.  Jack Beckman, 655.

Pro Stock: 1.  Erica Enders-Stevens, 1,166; 2.  Allen Johnson, 925; 3.  Jeg Coughlin, 900; 4.  Dave Connolly, 875; 5.  Jason Line, 863; 6.  Vincent Nobile, 840; 7.  Shane Gray, 833; 8.  Chris McGaha, 600; 9.  V. Gaines, 562; 10.  Jonathan Gray, 484.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1.  Andrew Hines, 650; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 581; 3.  Hector Arana Jr, 515; 4.  Hector Arana, 416; 5.  John Hall, 407; 6.  Matt Smith, 394; 7.  Scotty Pollacheck, 375; 8.  Angie Smith, 352; 9.  Michael Ray, 333; 10.  Steve Johnson, 320.

Pro Modified: 1.  Rickie Smith, 414; 2.  Mike Janis, 403; 3.  Von Smith, 362; 4.  Mike Castellana, 359; 5.  Steve Matusek, 358; 6.  Danny Rowe, 353; 7.  Kevin Fiscus, 333; 8.  Pete Farber, 319; 9.  Troy Coughlin, 313; 10.  Steven Whiteley, 238.

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Memo Gidley’s race comeback confirmed in PWC at Sonoma

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Some fantastic news below as Memo Gidley’s return to top-flight sports car racing has been confirmed. He’ll race a Porsche 911 GT3 R in the upcoming Pirelli World Challenge weekend at Sonoma Raceway in September.

The full release with details is below:

It’s been a long, winding road for race car driver Memo Gidley the past three and a half years. But that road will now take the popular 46-year-old driver from Sauslito, Calif., back to the racetrack next month.

After a devastating crash at Daytona International Speedway in 2014, Gidley has endured nine surgeries and three years of rehabilitation to return to the racing cockpit in the all-new No. 101 TKO Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R sports car.

On September 14-16, Gidley makes his racing return in the Pirelli World Challenge GT Sprint (50-minutes) doubleheader, just a few miles from his Northern California home at the 2.22-mile, 11-turn road circuit at Sonoma Raceway. The Pirelli World Challenge twin bill will be part of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma with the Verizon IndyCar Series finale.

“I have been waiting a long time for this announcement,” said Gidley, who suffered multiple fractures in a vicious crash in 2014 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. “It was a long rehab process but I always wanted to get back into the race car and my friends at TKO Motorsports have given me this opportunity. And I am extremely grateful for this chance in the Pirelli World Challenge.”

Gidley, whose racing resumé includes IndyCars, prototype sports cars, formula cars, go karts and even sail boats, worked through his final back surgery (fusing vertebrae 3 to 4 and 4 to 5) in November, 2015 and was cleared to return to racing activities in November, 2016. Then it was back at the karting track at Sonoma Raceway and looking for a chance to drive with a race team.

“I want to give Dave Traitel and all of the TKO Motorsports team a big thank you for this opportunity to race at Sonoma Raceway in the big Pirelli World Challenge/IndyCar weekend,” said Memo. “They have worked hard to prepare a Porsche 911 GT3 R for me to compete in one of the best GT sports car series in the world. And I can’t wait to race again.”

Gidley’s comeback is one of spirit and determination that he questioned at times. With titanium rods and screws in several parts of his body, Memo fought through nerve pain, scar tissue and various rehab processes with included therapeutic pools, physical therapy and long walks.

“The nerve pain was the worst at times,” admitted Gidley. “It was difficult to deal with as I continued the rehab. I couldn’t even take the bumps on the city streets in the passenger car. But, eventually, that pain went away. Now, I can’t bend down and touch my toes with the fusion in the back. But I was able to continue my training and even karting regularly.”

On May 25, Gidley did jump back into a PWC GT sports car at Sonoma Raceway when former team owner Bob Stallings let Memo drive his GAINSCO “Red Dragon” Porsche 911 GT3 R in testing.

“The team was testing there with Jon Fogarty, an old friend,” said Gidley. “And then they wanted me to take a few laps too. It was awesome to get back in a race car. Now, I’m with the TKO Motorsports team and I have my own race car to compete in at Sonoma in September. To say I’m anxious would be an understatement.”

Last week, Gidley and TKO Motorsports squad tested with the rest of the Pirelli World Challenge GT sports field at Utah Motorsports Campus prior to the Grand Prix of Utah weekend.

“It just felt great to be back in the racing paddock with a team,” he said. “I saw so many old friends and racers and they were so nice to me and the team. Actually, we didn’t get as many laps in testing as we would have liked. But we talked to the PWC officials and other teams to get an idea of the Sonoma races. TKO Motorsports is a growing company but it has not raced in sports cars previously. So, Dave and the crew were gathering a lot of information for the future.”

TKO Motorsports, based in Reno, Nev., was established in 2008 with a racing background in off-shore boat racing, drag racing and off-road racing. And the company has been very successful constructing high-performance road machines. But sports car racing will be new to the group.

“We will test again before the Sonoma race weekend and continue to learn about the Porsche and the track,” said Gidley. “I saw the lineup of top teams and drivers for the Pirelli World Challenge at Utah. It has some of the best in the world. I know it won’t be easy for me and the TKO crew. But we are excited to get our car into the action at Sonoma. It’s been a long road back for me and I believe I’m ready to go.”

While the journey back to the track for Gidley has been difficult, he has been busy with his commercial charter boat business and racing sailing boats in the Bay area. Now, it’s time to get back to the road racing that he loves.

“Hey, racing is in my blood, whether it’s on the water or the track,” said Memo. “I’ve been racing a 35-foot sail boat recently and it is fun. But getting back in the race car is the ultimate for me. And now I get the chance at my hometown track in a world-class GT sports car. It’s the best for me.”

The Pirelli World Challenge weekend at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 14-16 will include doubleheader features in the GT/GTA/GT Cup Sprint series as well as the GTS division. Practice gets underway on Friday (Sept. 14) with racing for the GT and GTS classes on Saturday (Sept. 15) and Sunday (Sept. 16).

Saavedra returns to SPM, again, for upcoming races

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Following the mutual parting of ways between Mikhail Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Sebastian Saavedra will once again be back in the team’s No. 7 Honda for the next two oval races at Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park.

The Colombian impressed in a surprise one-off appearance in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Toronto, as Aleshin was sat down for one race. Saavedra ran as high as seventh and finished 11th after improving from 20th on the grid.

“I am very excited to be back with the SPM organization,” Saavedra said in a release. “It’s another late call to jump in, but I take it with pride after a promising start of our relationship in Toronto. Looking forward to a challenging event as the Tricky Triangle can be, and support (James) Hinchcliffe in his pursuit of championship points. I’m thankful to my sponsors and my continued relationship with AFS Inc.”

“Delighted to have Sebastian back with the SPM team following what was a very encouraging performance at the Toronto event,” added Piers Phillips, General Manager of SPM. “He is experienced and competent, and I have no doubt he will contribute to the overall performance of the team. We’re heading to Pocono full of confidence as a team and we’re looking forward to hopefully seeing Sebastian and James at the front of the pack.”

The likable 27-year-old driver has enjoyed longtime support from Gary Peterson of AFS Racing throughout a stop-start IndyCar career since 2010, with more than 60 career starts and just a handful of top-10 finishes.

It remains to be seen what Saavedra and Peterson put together for 2018; at Mid-Ohio, Peterson indicated he was working towards an IMSA Prototype program next year.

As for the final two road course races this year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, SPM has not yet announced that plan.

Robert Wickens, who filled in for Aleshin temporarily on the Friday of Road America weekend, made his case on Tuesday to “stir the pot” a bit in a social media post.

The Canadian doesn’t have any DTM conflicts either weekend and would be a popular selection if he does get the call.

Two upcoming oval races provide great win chances for ECR

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Ed Carpenter Racing, surprisingly, has only four races left to extend its run of winning at least one race in a Verizon IndyCar Series season to four straight years.

Mike Conway brought Carpenter two wins on the streets of Long Beach and Toronto in 2014, while Carpenter won his most recent race at Texas. Then with Josef Newgarden winning twice at Barber and Toronto in 2015, under the CFH Racing banner, before the team reverted back to ECR last year, Newgarden won again in Iowa last year in dominant, beat-down fashion.

As a team that’s been a consistent thorn in the side of the more established “big three” teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, Carpenter’s team has been close on a couple occasions to continuing its winning pedigree this year but come up short. Short oval races that got away from JR Hildebrand at Iowa and both Hildebrand and Carpenter at Phoenix loom large.

Still, Hildebrand is keen to note how he and new engineer Justin Taylor have meshed this year – and how this two-week break in the schedule has allowed for a full reset.

“The only thing (that’s bad) with the schedule for the series is that it’s pretty rapid fire,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “So sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’ve fully analyzed everything you do on a weekend, before shifting gears to the next thing. You have to look at making ‘base hits’ through the season. You don’t have time to make really dramatic changes without the time between races.

“It’s definitely been fast paced just across the board. You’re going from a couple races and testing to being back in the saddle, full blast is an adjustment. Overall it’s a really good group of guys we have. It’s been fun working with Justin. He’s done a good job, and that makes all the little differences.”

Hildebrand lamented the late-race loss at Iowa; he got balked a bit in traffic but was still happy to finish second, particularly after an accident in practice that forced the ECR team to need to make repairs to his primary No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

“It was obviously frustrating to have a situation like that. The race was so much different from that perspective. That more than anything I what’s irritating. Something like that wouldn’t have happened a year ago with the tire being a little different, track temps being under control,” Hildebrand explained about the changes in temperatures and Firestone’s year-on-year tire difference.

“At the end of the day – particularly given the season we’ve had with the ups and downs – so for me I can kind of look at that and feel some relief we executed at a high level all weekend,” he said. “The Iowa weekend was not super easy with the change in tire; we knew from the test day that the car was different, so we working so hard to find the bit of magic from the previous year. The way it all worked out, I felt like that we got as much out of it as we could.

“We could have won that race. But we came back from an accident in practice to get to the outside front row. I’ll end up looking back at that and felt, ‘Well that could have been my first IndyCar win,’ but over the course of the midst of the season, I felt good about bringing it home on podium. We know that we’ve had cars that are good circumstances play out over time.”

While Pocono could play to ECR’s benefit – Carpenter qualified second and Hildebrand sixth at the Indianapolis 500 before falling back to unrepresentative finishes – it’s Gateway where the team also looks to break through considering its short oval prowess this season.

Said Hildebrand, “St. Louis should be good; we’ve been at our best from a competitiveness standpoint at short ovals. Again it’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of what to expect from the new surface. But with the track grip coming up and us as good as we were at Phoenix, that should bode well.”

Carpenter, who’s finished 12th or better in each of his four starts this season, now has his first and only chance to race consecutive events all season.

“I have always really enjoyed racing an Indy car at Pocono,” Carpenter said heading into the weekend. “It’s such a challenging track that requires a lot of work to get the right setup on the car. While we’ve had good cars there in the past, good results have eluded us. It’s my second-to-last race of the year, so I’m hopeful we can get the finish we have been working towards!”

Newgarden was fourth at Pocono last year; Carpenter’s best finish at Pocono is ninth in 2013 while Hildebrand makes his first Pocono start this weekend.

Dane Cameron’s ‘Penske perfect’ arrival comes at just right time

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A friendly exchange with Dane Cameron yesterday in the immediate aftermath of his confirmation for the Team Penske and Acura Motorsports sports car program centered on the fact that somehow, he’s still only 28 years old.

This seems hard to believe considering all that Cameron has accomplished in the North American sports car landscape, but yet still hasn’t quite received the major notoriety within the national racing consciousness beyond the hardcore followers of the sport.

Cameron could well have been an open-wheel star but like many others in the mid-to-late 2000s, was a victim of terrible timing. After cleaning up in the 2007 Star Mazda championship (now Pro Mazda) with JDC Motorsports, Cameron’s reward was graduating into Formula Atlantic in 2008… the same year Champ Car folded and its assets were absorbed by INDYCAR.

Nonetheless Cameron, the son of longtime winning racing engineer Rick Cameron, was always high on speed and potential and showed it in a variety of sports car outings over the years to come.

He raced primarily the screaming, rotary-powered Mazda RX-8s in GRAND-AM, then raced a variety of prototypes in the following years before landing his first major drive within the merged sports car championship, at Turner Motorsport in 2014 with a BMW Z4 GT3 – and promptly won the GT Daytona class title.

A move to Action Express Racing was the next step in his career growth, joining the established Daytona Prototype championship-winning outfit with Eric Curran and Whelen Engineering in the team’s second car. That team took time to grow but still won quickly and contended for the title in its first year, prior to breaking through and winning last year’s title.

Cameron’s 2017 season has been an exercise in frustration as the landscape of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has changed. Expected to defend the title, Cameron and Curran have instead struggled for the same level of metronomic consistency of the last two years and Cameron, who’s still blindingly quick, has often been playing catchup in the more aero dependent Cadillac as the Action Express team has worked to understand the baseline Dallara chassis that lies underneath the Cadillac DPi bodywork. Coming from a period of success with Coyote, that chassis change for the team shouldn’t be overlooked.

Arguably the flashpoint of Cameron’s 2017 campaign came early on at Long Beach, with a rare unforced error trying to close the gap after going in too deep into the tight, tricky 90-degree right-hander. It wrote off a car and forced the team into a scramble drill prior to the next round at Circuit of The Americas.

Just three races into the season, it also left Cameron and Curran 26 points back of the Taylor brothers – a near insurmountable gap to overcome over seven races given IMSA’s points system makes it difficult to gain more than a handful of points per race. As it sits now, they’re 31 points back, five races later and with only two more to go.

Was a change of scenery inevitable for Cameron? Given the timing and opportunity available here, Cameron was always a natural fit. Although the Cameron/Curran pairing won last year’s title, few seasoned paddock observers will have rated it as the top one on the grid.

Much like Josef Newgarden in IndyCar or Ryan Blaney in NASCAR, Cameron is that 2017 type of “Penske perfect” type of driver – still under 30, with a lot of his future ahead of him, but enough experience built up to add his name to the Penske file now.

He’s business-first, with the clean-cut look, who is all business on the track but does have a sneaky sense of humor beneath the surface. Cameron, who’s married to wife Sarah and has two kids, chooses his words carefully; brevity is one of his skill sets, as he’s always careful of what he says and how he says it. He already lives in North Carolina, so that means he’s already close to the shop.

One of the cool things Penske can provide is a cross-promotional platform between its other series. And sure, you don’t expect to see Cameron racing in NASCAR, IndyCar or V8 Supercars anytime soon – though he’d probably excel in any opportunity if given the chance with the variety of cars he’s already raced – but the brand exposure for him can get built up here in the years to come, especially as he’s paired with a known name in teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who was winning titles in the 1990s when Cameron had only just reached double digits in age. Add him to the “Penske Games” social media video series next year, and it’ll be interesting to see what side of his personality emerges.

For Cameron, while this deal appears to have come together quickly even though as rumors of his name being with Penske have percolated for months, the timing still seems just right.

“It’s all really come together pretty quickly in the last couple days really, to be honest, to get it done,” he said. “That being said, I really only signed the contract last night (Monday). It’s kind of escalated pretty quickly.

“I’m really excited about a tremendous opportunity to represent Acura and to work with everyone here at Team Penske. I haven’t seen much yet so far, but been getting around, shaking a couple hands, been really impressed so far.  Quite excited with what lies ahead.”

Cameron’s experience with Action Express these last three years will be key for Penske, Acura and Montoya to draw upon for 2018. For Cameron, having the stability of a long-term home there was key after the aforementioned five years between 2009 and 2013 when he raced a number of different series and cars but rarely stayed with the same team and/or in the same car for more than two consecutive years.

“It’s been a terrifically successful three‑year stretch, to win a bunch of races, to win a title. I really enjoyed myself there, and I really want to thank everyone at Actions Express and Whelen Engineering for not only the opportunity to go there in the first place, but then for great cars and teams and great results,” he said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision at all to come to this point. It’s been a good home for me there. Yeah, it was not easy, but an opportunity to work closely with Acura and to join Team Penske was a little too good for me to pass up.

“I’m looking forward to the future, but also remaining focused and committed to having a strong couple races here to close out the current IMSA season.”

The testing for Cameron will begin shortly after Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7, when he enters officially into the Acura ARX-05 – which by that point, Montoya will have put through its paces. It will be a busy build-up period over the winter before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but Cameron will be key to getting the car to the starting line, then excelling once 2018 hits.

“It will be fun to be a part of the early stages of the program and try to contribute as best I can,” he said

“Obviously, Team Penske is what it is because of the people that are in place, as well as Acura and the engine that’s going to be part of the program. I think it’s pretty well‑sorted.

“I don’t think anyone who is involved with this program is doing it for any other reason except to win races and championships and pole positions.  I think as a driver you always have that expectation for yourself.

“I don’t think anyone expects more out of ourselves than Juan and I will. I don’t see any reason why we can’t come out of the gate strong at Daytona.”