(Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Ben Rhodes, 17-year-old phenom, could tie Ricky Craven’s five-race K&N win streak record Friday at Loudon


One of the records ESPN analyst and former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven takes pride in owning could wind up being tied Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Maine native will be on hand as 17-year-old racing phenom Ben Rhodes attempts to tie Craven’s nearly quarter-century old series record of five straight wins in the K&N East Series in the East Granite 100.

“I do think it’s impressive, certainly more impressive what Ben is doing than what I did back then,” Craven said during a Wednesday morning NASCAR teleconference. “I think it’s mostly because he’s 17 years old, and I think it deserves a lot of attention. It’s what separates him from the crowd.”

Craven won five in a row on the K&N Series during the 1991 season.

Ironically, Craven and Rhodes will meet for the first time before the race, but Craven is already wishing Rhodes well in Friday’s race.

“I’m very enthusiastic,” Craven said. “I’ll go out of my way to find him this weekend and shake hands and wish him luck, as I’m really pulling for him to not only tie the record but exceed it.

“(Holding the record for) 23 years is a long time. I never really thought at the time that winning four or five in a row was important, and I think even if this happens that Ben would probably reiterate that. As a competitor, it’s just about winning and it’s about winning a championship.”

While the two haven’t met yet, Craven has been keeping up on Rhodes’ career from a distance.

“I’ve spent some time trying to better know Ben as a race car driver, and I’m really impressed,” Craven said. “He has all the tools, the ingredients, obviously a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of talent. But the people that I’ve asked say that he races like a 17 year old but he has the sense of a 37 year old, and I think that’s a magical combination.”

Rhodes is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to going for five wins in a row, he’ll also be going for his sixth win overall in just 10 races thus far this season on the K&N Pro Series East schedule.

The five wins came at Greenville (S.C.), and the last four on the schedule at Iowa, Winston-Salem (N.C.), Pensacola (Fla.) and Hampton (Va.).

He also finished second at Richmond, third at Bristol (Tenn.) and fourth at New Smyrna (Fla.).

He’s failed to finish inside the top-five just once thus far (15th at Daytona) and also has two poles.

He’s the latest young hot shoe in a series that has seen quite a few current Sprint Car drivers essentially start their own racing careers, including Austin Dillon, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.

“You know, it’s strange, I don’t wake up every day thinking I’m old, but watching you and seeing what you are accomplishing at such an early age, I have kids older than you, Ben, so I guess it puts everything in perspective,” Craven said. “But no, I sincerely — I want to see you tie this weekend, and I really think you’ve got a great shot, not only because of all the things that have happened recently and the momentum that goes with that, but New Hampshire is a good track in terms of if you have a fast car and you have a real good feel for the car that day, it’s big enough that you can maneuver around other drivers.  So I think it’s a good place to get that fifth in a row.”

Rhodes has obviously caught the attention of a number of individuals, not just fans and media, but team owners as well. He’s already had two starts this season in the Camping World Truck Series (eighth at Martinsville, crashed and finished 22nd at Dover).

There’s already talk about him possibly even going up to the Nationwide Series. But of course that requires sponsorship, a good team and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

“If funding wasn’t an issue, I would like to go to Nationwide,” Rhodes said. “I think it would be an easier jump from the K&N cars to Nationwide and an easier jump from Nationwide to Sprint Cup.

“But that’s looking pretty far ahead, and I think that would be much easier because of the aero package and everything that makes it up. I know those trucks with the huge side force that they have, it would make it hard learning those things and then trying to jump in the Nationwide car.

“It obviously works and it’s a very good learning curve and definitely a good stepping-stone, but if I could just get in that and learn from the get-go, I think that would be good. It would knock out some of the learning curve, I think, going from the trucks to the Nationwide, and I think sponsors and funding is a little bit better for Nationwide Series.”

Rhodes is part of the NASCAR Next driver development program – and it’s an understatement to say his development has been like the way he drives a race car: f-a-s-t.

“The success has been great,” Rhodes said. “We’ve already been trying to focus on some plans for next year and trying to get stuff together. But as you know and everybody knows in racing, it’s a difficult sport. A lot of stuff can be done at last minute and get it all together, so we’re still figuring out our plans, but it’s definitely been helping. It’s definitely been opening up some doors and bringing some attention to us. I’ve felt like we’ve had this in us all the time, it’s just finally coming together.”

To be compared to someone like Craven “gives me a lot of confidence,” Rhodes said. “Just to be able to talk to people that have been around the sport for a long time, and they obviously know way more than I do, and just to try to tap into that knowledge and hear what they have to say is always great.

“You know, I’m hearing what (Craven) says, and it gives me a big boost of confidence. Going into these races, it’s funny how I can relate to what he’s saying from way back then to what I’m feeling now. He’s talking about not throwing down and focusing on that championship, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not really looking at each race. Winning each race is great, but our focus is the next one. I don’t even look back. You come in every day and you see the trophy is there anyway, but you look at them, admire them for a second, good job, pat on the back, and we’re right back to work ready to win the next one.

“I’m seeing a lot of similarities, and it’s cool to see that, and it definitely gives me a boost of confidence being in the same conversation as him and hearing what he has to say.”

Added Craven, “What Ben has accomplished already at such an early age, it doesn’t happen by mistake, so it speaks to his talent and it speaks to his focus. When you look at the young drivers in the series that have rolled out of it very quickly, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson, the latest example, and even if you take it a step further and look at the prospects of the sport, Chase Elliott, who graduates, has success, I think that benefits into that mold. Again, I’ve not watched him race. The numbers don’t lie.  They are very impressive. And listening to him, he just seems like he’s ahead of his years.”

As the teleconference ended, Craven had one last bit of encouragement to Rhodes: “I look forward to seeing you and look forward to pulling for you. You’ve given me a reason to watch the race. Have a great weekend.”

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Flying Lizard double news: Porsches in PWC, Toyo Audi at Thunderhill

Photo: Porsche AG
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It’s been a busy week for Flying Lizard Motorsports, with a pair of program announcements. One venerable chassis and two new ones have been announced for the Sonoma, Calif.-based team.

Earlier this week, Flying Lizard confirmed the return of its Toyo Tires partnership in the Toyo-shod and liveried No. 45 Audi R8 LMS ultra at NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill.

Program manager Darren Law and team veteran Johannes van Overbeek are back, with past Lizard drivers Dion von Moltke and Mike Hedlund set to replace Guy Cosmo and Tomonobu Fujii as the other two drivers.

The Toyo Lizard Audi dominated last year’s race, winning overall by some 35 laps.

“We look forward to the challenges of this year’s 25-Hours, and are returning to prove once again that Toyo Proxes Slicks are the tires to have for drivers looking to dominate in any form of road racing,” said Marc Sanzenbacher, senior manager, motorsports, Toyo Tire U.S.A. Corp.

“The race conditions at this event are notoriously unpredictable and we welcome the various technical challenges it presents our engineers. We have some new cool weather and intermediate rain tire options to evaluate for this event and we look forward to gathering important development data while pursuing another overall victory.”


Meanwhile on Friday, Flying Lizard has also confirmed a two-car GTS class entry in Pirelli World Challenge with longtime manufacturer Porsche.

As part of that class and series’ new GT4-spec wave in the category – it will be all GT4-spec in 2018 with a final one-year run for existing previous non-GT4 machinery – Flying Lizard will run two of the new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR entries. Those cars debuted at the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this year with GMG Racing.

Flying Lizard’s continued relationship with Porsche Motorsport North America (PMNA) will strengthen the effort, becoming a part of the North American Young Driver Development program.

“This just feels right to see Flying Lizard Motorsports back again with a Porsche program,” said Program Manager Darren Law. “We have had so many successful and memorable races with Porsche. Much of my driving career has been with Flying Lizard Motorsports, so I am happy that we will have the opportunity to join forces with Porsche for the upcoming season.”

INDYCAR set to sanction Mazda MX-5 Cup from 2017

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INDYCAR, not IMSA and not SCCA, will sanction the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires from 2017.

This sees the SCCA take a step back operationally from running this series, while INDYCAR – which has occasionally had sports car components on race weekends – will get into the business of sanctioning a sports car series for the first time.

Mazda Motorsports and Andersen Promotions announced today that the parties have reached an agreement for INDYCAR to sanction the Mazda MX-5 Cup series beginning with the 2017 season. The Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is the signature spec series for the Mazda Road to 24 (#MRT24), the sports car counterpart to the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires (#MRTI).

In both programs, series champions earn a Mazda Motorsports scholarship to advance their racing careers. The MX-5 Cup season champion earns a $200,000 scholarship. New for 2017, the MX-5 Cup Rookie-of-the-Year will earn a $50,000 scholarship. In total, MX-5 Cup pays more than half-a-million dollars in prize money and scholarships.

“This sanctioning agreement with INDYCAR for the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is based upon our long and productive relationship with Dan Andersen, Andersen Promotions and INDYCAR,” said John Doonan, director of motorsports at Mazda North American Operations.

“We have worked closely with them to grow the Mazda Road to Indy into the finest open-wheel ladder in the world. Now, we are striving to grow this series, which is the first step of our sports car ladder known as the Mazda Road to 24. In only one year, we have sold more than 120 of the newest generation of MX-5 Cup cars and have seen starting fields of up to 40 cars.

“By teaming with INDYCAR, we believe the series will thrive. Mazda strives to provide value to our customers, and to present our race teams with this race schedule today is a big step forward. They will have the opportunity to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, plus other iconic circuits in the U.S. and Canada.”

In 2017 the MX-5 Cup will consist of a 12-race schedule held on a total of six event weekends, plus the second annual Global MX-5 Cup Invitational, a non-points-paying event for Mazda racers from around the world. Four of those event weekends will be held during Verizon IndyCar Series events – Barber Motorsports Park (April 20-23), Road America (June 23-25), Toronto (July 14-16) and Watkins Glen International (September 1-3). The series will also compete on the road course of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the SVRA event (June 15-17) and twice at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (Sept. 22-24 and the Global Invitational, Oct. 13-15).

“The Mazda MX-5 Cup race car is such a terrific package and the MX-5 Cup championship already has shown what great racing this car and its drivers can provide,” said Dan Andersen, CEO of Andersen Promotions, which will oversee operational aspects of the series.

“Andersen Promotions is very excited to expand its Mazda involvement and move into the Mazda Road to 24 sports car ladder to complement what the Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel ladder has already accomplished. We are all about developing drivers for careers in racing, and we expect to bring our experience to MX-5 Cup and enhance the training that drivers receive to better enable them to climb the sports car ladder. INDYCAR is the best sanctioning body and has such exciting events on its calendar, and I can’t wait to add MX-5 Cup to some of these weekends and wave the Mazda flag even more.”

The MX-5 Cup series is considered the best value in sports car racing. The cars are sold as a ready-to-race, turnkey package for $58,900. Because of the parity of the cars, the racing is always close, hard-fought and great fun for fans. The series is entering its twelfth season of action.

“When Mazda approached us regarding MX-5 Cup, we felt it would be a great opportunity for INDYCAR to expand upon what we’re already doing with our involvement in the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations. “This agreement also allows us to enhance our overall platform with Mazda Motorsports and Andersen Promotions, who have been great partners of INDYCAR.”

Hamilton quickest in opening Mexican GP practice

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Defending Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton sent out an early warning shot to Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg by finishing fastest in opening practice for the Mexican Grand Prix on Friday.

Hamilton arrives in Mexico trailing Rosberg by 26 points in the drivers’ championship with three races remaining, meaning that even a clean sweep of victories may not be enough to deny his teammate a maiden title.

Hamilton lost out to Rosberg in Mexico last November as F1 returned to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez after 23 years away, and is keen to add another new trophy to his collection this time around.

Opening practice saw Hamilton set the pace on the medium compound tire, with his lap of 1:20.914 enough to give him P1 come the end of the session.

Rosberg was unable to match his teammate’s pace, finishing down in seventh in the final standings as a number of drivers opted to push on the softer tire compounds.

Sebastian Vettel was second for Ferrari on the soft tire, finishing just 0.079 seconds off Hamilton at the top, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen was third.

Force India conducted running on the super-soft tire for part of the session, allowing home favorite Sergio Perez to finish fourth ahead of teammate Nico Hulkenberg, both within half a second of Hamilton’s time.

Valtteri Bottas finished sixth for Williams, leaving Rosberg to settle for seventh, over three-quarters of a second off P1.

Daniel Ricciardo finished a lowly eighth as the lead Red Bull driver, as teammate Max Verstappen’s running was limited after a small fire broke out on the left-rear wheel of his car. Felipe Massa and Daniil Kvyat rounded out the top 10.

The session was red flagged after 30 minutes when Felipe Nasr’s front wing failed through the esses, appearing to break after he ran across the curb with force. The local marshals were quick to sweep away the debris, ensuring the session could continue not long after.

Second practice for the Mexican Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET on Friday.

Nielsen, Balzan to return to Scuderia Corsa to defend title in 2017

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After claiming this year’s GT Daytona class championship in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan will be back with Scuderia Corsa for the 2017 season to defend their title.

Nielsen became the first female driver to win an IMSA title this past season. Balzan, meanwhile added an IMSA GTD title to his – and Scuderia Corsa’s – 2013 title in the GRAND-AM Rolex GT Series.

A release from the team confirming the return is below:

Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan will return as teammates to Scuderia Corsa to defend their GT-Daytona IMSA SportsCar Championship for the 2017 season.

The 2016 season was a banner year for Scuderia Corsa. In addition to capturing the GT-Daytona championship with Nielsen and Balzan, they also captured the IMSA North American Endurance Cup for GT-D. Scuderia Corsa also won the Pirelli World Challenge GT-A championship, and the GTE-Am class victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With Nielsen and Balzan’s return, they will be aiming for the team’s fourth IMSA championship since 2013.

“I am really looking forward to being back with Scuderia Corsa,” said Nielsen. It’s been an absolute dream season in 2016 with them. I have no reason at all not to believe that they will be one of the favorites for taking the championship again in 2017.

“I think as a driver, after going through different championships and teams over the last couple of years, I am really looking forward to going back to Daytona this January with this group. We all know each other and we can continue the work we have done so far and improve from there. I think it’s a more calm environment – you don’t have to start over and get to know everyone in the beginning of the year. We are already comfortable with each other, the routine is there, everything is working well.”

On their way to the IMSA championships, Nielsen and Balzan captured two victories (12 Hours of Sebring and Six Hours of the Glen) and five additional podium finishes. As well, it was Balzan’s second championship with the team, and he is now anxious to compete for a third.

“I’m really happy that 2017 will be my fourth season with Scuderia Corsa,” said Balzan. “I’m really proud to be a part of this team and to drive the No. 63 Ferrari 488 GT3 again with Christina. We will have a lot of new competitors and this is giving me all the energy I need to come back stronger and more focused!”

For Scuderia Corsa team owner, returning with his championship-winning program intact was his top priority.

“After the type of season we had, you of course want to keep this winning combination of drivers and team together,” said Mattioli. “With Christina and Alessandro, our team has a high level of chemistry that would be very hard to replicate. They have a good time and build each other up, but they maintain a team-first attitude and work together to solve problems when we encounter them. I am very proud of the job that Christina and Alessandro did in 2016 and I am looking forward to seeing what they can accomplish in 2017.”