Road America’s state of the union: Good NASCAR, IMSA crowds; IndyCar still waits

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I had a brief opportunity to catch up with Road America track president George Bruggenthies this weekend regarding the year to date for its two major events (plenty more, including motorcycle and vintage weekends, also take place during the year).

The NASCAR/Pirelli World Challenge weekend in June went off well in terms of ticket sales and TV appearance, despite the intermittent rain that delayed the start of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

Meanwhile this weekend’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race, a single race weekend compared to the double, one-off GRAND-AM Rolex Series/American Le Mans Series weekend that occurred in 2013, saw ticket sales close to what was achieved last year.

“We’re close on sales,” Bruggenthies told MotorSportsTalk ahead of Sunday’s TUDOR Championship race. “Last year as a one-off event with both, it was always going to draw more. But we’ve had perfect weather this weekend.”

Additional sponsors came to the NASCAR weekend in June, with two new sponsors including new race title sponsor Gardner Denver. Bruggenthies confirmed the Pirelli World Challenge will return to the track next season, as well.

But the elephant in the room continues to be whether the Verizon IndyCar Series will ever return, for what would be the first time since the former Champ Car series’ last race there in 2007.

IndyCar rookie Jack Hawksworth competed at the track this weekend for the first time; he praised it and wondered why IndyCar wasn’t at the track. Additionally James Hinchcliffe was in action as well, racing at Road America for the first time since Formula Atlantic in 2008. Sadly he wasn’t able to drive as local driver and teammate Scott Mayer wrecked out of the race on Lap 3; Hawksworth’s entry finished fourth in the PC class.

Bruggenthies, who’s told me previously that the sanctioning fee IndyCar requires has been too high, now said it’s more the schedule that’s an issue.

“With Mark Miles ending the year on Labor Day, it compacts everything,” Bruggenthies explained. “The schedule is more the issue than the business side. Of course we’d need sponsors to make it happen.

“I could do Labor Day. But there’s another event already there. Derrick Walker was here this weekend; we’ve talked.”

Perhaps the greater sticking point from an IndyCar at Road America standpoint now compared to a year or two ago is the fact the TUDOR Championship would rather position itself as a lead series, not play as a second feature on an IndyCar weekend.

IMSA President/COO Scott Atherton expanded on that in an interview with MotorSportsTalk Sunday morning from Road America, where the 2015 IMSA schedules were announced.

“We race with IndyCar in Long Beach and Detroit. We play together nicely and there is positive synergy between the two organizations,” Atherton said.

“But we’re careful to position the TUDOR Championship as a featured lead act, so to speak. When we race with IndyCar, there’s two of them in those historical venues.  Long Beach has been an open-wheel venue for 40 years, so it’s tough to be considered an equal there, but that market is so important to us and our stakeholders. If you’re a road racing product, you have to be in Southern California, and that’s the only option.”

Atherton said he would not be opposed to any additional content with IndyCar, but in terms of a joint IndyCar/TUDOR Championship weekend at Road America, Atherton said he has not had any dialogue with Bruggenthies on the topic.

Interestingly there was an IndyCar vendor presence this weekend in Elkhart Lake anyway, but not at Road America.

Andretti Sports Marketing, which promotes this upcoming weekend’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers at the Milwaukee Mile, had a presence at the iconic Siebkens Resort both Friday and Saturday night.

Bobby Rahal, Katherine Legge and Derrick Walker were in attendance Friday night – all had a vested interest in the TUDOR Championship weekend. Rahal runs the two-car BMW Team RLL entry in GT Le Mans, Legge races the radical DeltaWing coupe and Walker’s Walker Racing team operates the Team Falken Tire Porsche in GTLM. Saturday night, GT Daytona polesitter James Davison of TRG-AMR and Dodge/SRT marketing director Beth Paretta were on site.

The promotion was spearheaded by Laura Cooper, Andretti Sports Marketing Director of Marketing Services, who has local ties to the region.

“She’s been involved with a variety of events here in Elkhart Lake, Skip Barber, charity events and the like,” Bruggenthies said. “With Walker, Bobby being here it was a natural. It’s no problem for us; it’s not detrimental.”

Hungarian Grand Prix on NBCSN concludes busy July for F1

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The third Grand Prix for the month of July and fourth in the last six weeks for Formula 1 after races in Baku, Spielberg and Silverstone takes place this week with the Hungarian Grand Prix from Budapest.

After a couple races on CNBC, the channel is simple this weekend: it’s NBCSN for all sessions on TV with free practice two (Friday) and qualifying (Saturday) both live at 8 a.m. ET, with a full one-hour countdown for the race from 7 a.m. ET on Sunday before lights out at 8.

As per usual the NBC Sports App will live stream free practices one and three, with all sessions streamed during the weekend.

The British Grand Prix two weeks ago brings this year’s F1 season to an interesting point. With Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton’s win, it brings him to within just one point of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for the championship lead. Vettel is at 177 with Hamilton now at 176.

And Hungary’s been a place where both drivers have succeeded. Hamilton won here last year while Vettel won in 2015. Overall Hamilton has a record five Hungarian Grand Prix victories (2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2016) and will look to match his Canada total with a sixth this weekend. Vettel’s 2015 win is his only triumph at the circuit.

Other Hungarian Grand Prix winners in the field are Daniel Ricciardo (2014), Kimi Raikkonen (2005) and Fernando Alonso (2003).

Beyond the top two, Valtteri Bottas will look to upend proceedings and continue his own title battle for Mercedes. He sits third in points with 154, in a spot of his own well clear of fourth on back and just under a full race distance behind the leaders.

Here’s the schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Friday, July 28, 4 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, July 28, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 2 (Replay): Saturday, July 29, 6:30 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, July 29, 5 a.m.-6 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, July 29, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, July 30, 7 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, July 30, 8 a.m.-10 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, July 30, 10 a.m.-10:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, July 30, 9:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Formula 2: Sunday, July 30, 6 a.m.-7 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Belgian Grand Prix, on August 27, after F1’s traditional summer break.

Robert Hight extends Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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MORRISON, Colo. (AP) Robert Hight beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on Sunday in the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway to extend his Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons.

Hight topped Johnson with a 3.995-second pass at 317.57 mph in a Chevrolet Camaro SS for his 38th career victory.

“We definitely struggled through the first few rounds and we were lucky to get those round wins, but I have a great team who figured things out and helped get me to the winner’s circle,” Hight said. “It’s definitely a long-time coming and we hadn’t had much luck, but today we had some luck and we hope this continues throughout the Western Swing.”

Antron Brown won in Top Fuel, Drew Skillman in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Brown edged teammate and No. 1 qualifier Leah Pritchett with a 3.792 at 319.82. He has three victories this season to push his career total to 64.

Skillman raced to his second straight victory and the fifth of his career, beating points leader Bo Butner with a 6.916 run at 198.15 in a Camaro.

Krawiec topped Matt Smith with a 7.145 at 188.28. The Harley-Davidson rider has two victories this season and 38 overall.

Sauber confirms Matsushita for Hungary test as well

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Honda junior driver Nobuhiro Matsushita will have a run with Sauber F1 Team on the second day of the Hungarian Grand Prix post-race week test, in the team’s C36 chassis.

Sauber’s engine selection for 2018 is up in the air. While the team announced a switch from year old Ferraris to Hondas, this was done under prior team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and rumors have persisted the deal may be off, or wasn’t fully done in the first place.

That Matsushita is running at this test for his first day in an F1 car – Gustav Malja will run on day one – could indicate the Honda switch isn’t yet a dead topic.

“When I was four years old, I was fascinated by Michael Schumacher, watching him racing in Formula 1. Since then my dream was to become a Formula 1 driver,” he said. “I am very excited about my first Formula 1 test and I am really looking forward to driving the Sauber C36-Ferrari at the Hungaroring – it is a great opportunity for me. I hope it will be a productive day for the team as well as for myself, so that I can learn as much as possible. I would like to thank the Sauber F1 Team for making this happen.”

New team boss Frederic Vasseur, formerly of Renault, gave his take on the test.

“I am pleased that Nobuharu has this great opportunity. He deserves the experience of his first test in a Formula 1 car. Ever since his debut in Formula 2 with ART Grand Prix, I have been following his progress closely, and have watched him advance his performance from year to year. With this Formula 1 test, he comes one step closer to his dream of becoming an F1 driver one day.”

Renault confirms Robert Kubica will test in Hungary

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Renault Sport F1 Team has confirmed Robert Kubica will make his return to a current Formula 1 car in the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test, which will only continue to fuel the hype train for a possible race return.

The Pole has undertaken two tests in recent weeks with older cars but this day in the Renault R.S.17 will provide the team a chance to evaluate him in current machinery to gauge his race level fitness.

It’s a story that has got the F1 world buzzing in recent weeks as Kubica, injured in a rally accident before the 2011 season, has made a comeback to restart his racing career.

Poor Nicholas Latifi, also confirmed for the test that runs the Tuesday and Wednesday after the Hungarian Grand Prix, will be undoubtedly overlooked as a result.

Jolyon Palmer will race in Hungary this weekend at least but whether the Brit continues beyond the summer break that follows afterwards remains a question mark.