IndyCar: Hunter-Reay’s tenacity shows through yet again after Iowa win

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We’ve seen this act from Ryan Hunter-Reay and the Andretti Autosport team before in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

They were down, but not out.

Hunter-Reay and the No. 28 DHL Honda team have rebounded after a brutal stretch of races post-his Indianapolis 500 victory, when a 40-point lead leaving the first 500-miler of the year over Will Power turned into a 58-point deficit to Power and Helio Castroneves after last weekend’s Pocono INDYCAR 500 fueled by Sunoco.

On Saturday night at Iowa Speedway, at no point did RHR have the fastest car, but he did show great steely resolve. After starting 13th, Hunter-Reay raced into the top-10 early and was still in decent enough position, ninth, to where the late-race call to pit and take fresh tires was the only call.

He had the fresh shoes, but Hunter-Reay still had to go and win it from that position, and what followed in the final 10 laps was a classic never-say-die RHR performance.

“Yeah, I mean, I was really frustrated at times,” he said post-race. “I’ve learned in the years of experience that I’ve had in the Verizon IndyCar Series that you just have to keep your head in it. No matter what, you have to charge hard and be ready for it. Whether it’s a street circuit, short oval, races can turn. You have to put yourself in a position every time to take advantage of that, put yourself in a better position, get that car in front of you, whatever it is, just keep plugging away.

“We made the right call and we had the car that could take it, so it was good.”

When the chips are down, few are better in the Verizon IndyCar Series. And this already marks the second time RHR has recovered this year from a rough weekend or stretch.

After his Long Beach faux pas, Hunter-Reay reeled off two wins at Barber and the Indy 500 with a runner-up at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in-between.

Now, after the six-race stretch where Hunter-Reay failed to record a single top-five finish between Detroit and Pocono, he’s back to within 32 points of new points leader Castroneves after Iowa with six races to play.

He’s also been the best driver, by far, on the short ovals. Hunter-Reay has now won five of the last six (Loudon 2011, Milwaukee 2012/2013, Iowa 2012/2014) in the series. His only loss was a runner-up to Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe at Iowa last year.

Armed with the confidence of already having a championship, and the consistent bounce back he and the team led by engineer Ray Gosselin and team principal/strategist Michael Andretti have already produced, we should not be the least bit surprised that RHR found that recovery level Saturday night in Iowa.

(Updated) NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations immediately, cancels NHRA Summernationals

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

UPDATE: Hatcher reached out again to NBC Sports later Wednesday afternoon with an addendum that could be promising for race fans in other markets: “Upon hearing the news about the Englishtown track, we’ve received a significant level of interest from other track operators about hosting a national event in 2018.  We’re not sure if this is possible for 2018, but we’re definitely looking into it, if not for 2018, then perhaps for 2019.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”