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For IndyCar drivers, the history, challenge of Milwaukee endures

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It’s a legendary but rare, still living, enduring, and breathing organism.

“It” is The Milwaukee Mile – the lone remaining one-mile oval on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar – and a track whose history dates back to 1903, the oldest operating auto race track in North America.

Despite appearing similar in view, the two high-speed corners of Turns 1-2 and 3-4 pose a pair of separate and distinct challenges.

And then there’s traffic. For the 250 laps that make up the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the 22 drivers are weaving, slicing and dicing amongst themselves in a battle for position.

How your car is setup and how well you handle the traffic determine how well your day goes. And a tour through the paddock of drivers reveals how important both of those things are.

“Everything’s tough here. It’s a very challenging track to drive,” says Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “It looks to be very similar at both ends, but in reality they are very different. The line’s a little different. The racing surface is a little different on each end. And being a flat (track) makes it so challenging.”

While Iowa Speedway is both shorter (0.875 of a mile) and faster (pole speed average over 185 mph), Milwaukee is longer and flatter in terms of short oval races.

Considering his mastery of both tracks over the last three years (he’s won five of the last six short oval races dating to 2011), Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport made a key point that the short ovals aren’t getting their just desserts in terms of points being awarded.

“The short oval is the only discipline of racetrack that we don’t pay double points. We pay double points on the road and streets and on the superspeedways,” Hunter-Reay explained during an INDYCAR conference call last month.

“We don’t pay double points on the short ovals at all. Short ovals is what IndyCar is all about. That’s kind of where it all started. It started obviously at the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Milwaukee Mile is the oldest racetrack in the world. It’s deep in IndyCar heritage.”

Another driver who knows and appreciates the heritage of the race is Ryan Briscoe, who won at Milwaukee in 2008 in what was a banner day for him and his then team, Team Penske.

The win was the first of seven thus far his IndyCar career, and the 300th overall for Penske in racing. Now, six years later, Briscoe’s trying to beat the Penske trio as part of the Chip Ganassi Racing quartet.

“It’s a really tough track, and it’s tough to get consistency over the long run,” Briscoe said. “There’s different handling from one end of the track to the other. I’ve had some really good races with (Scott) Dixon, often I’ve better in 1-2, and he’s better in 3-4. It’s a compromise of setup and the racing line.”

A driver looking to break through this weekend is Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing, who like Briscoe, if either won would tie the mark of different winners in a season with 11.

Wilson made his oval debut at the track 10 years ago, in 2004 in Champ Car, and has had two near misses on potential wins. He finished second in 2006, and was charging through the field in 2012 before an engine failure.

“It was pretty intense. I remember it being a very long night,” Wilson recalled of his 2004 rookie start, with Conquest Racing. “I was loose on turn in to 1 and 3. And this was back in the Champ Car days when we used to have 750 horsepower! So it was really fast. My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is hard.’ We missed the setup… it wasn’t a lot of fun.

“But then we came back the next year (with RuSPORT) and it was much better. We qualified fourth and things were a lot easier, a lot smoother. It was two extremes within one 12-month period.”

Of his 2006 battle with Nelson Philippe for second, Wilson said he had to have a good car to be able to run side-by-side for 20-lap segments.

In 2012, with Coyne, Wilson qualified second, had an engine change penalty that dropped him to 12thh on the grid, came from there to fifth or sixth twice before the engine blew. It was frustrating, he said, because he knew they had a race-winning car.

A win in 2014 though, 10 years after his oval debut, would be special.

“It’d mean a lot to win here… it’s such a historical track,” Wilson said. “It’s the first oval I raced at, so to come full circle and to get a win would be pretty cool.”

We’ll see whether it’ll be either of the above four or the other 18 entered will break through this weekend.

A fighter her whole life, Shirley Muldowney faces biggest battle yet

Shirley Muldowney
(Getty Images)
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If she hadn’t of achieved success in drag racing, legendary Shirley Muldowney would have made one hell of a fighter.

After all, it was in her genes.

If they had tangled in a ring, Ronda Rousey would have had nothing on Muldowney in her prime.

Muldowney’s father, Belgium Benedict Roque – nicknamed “Tex Rock” – was a taxi driver by day and a semi-pro boxer of note at night in and around Shirley’s hometown of Schenectady, New York.

It was almost prophetic that on an otherwise nondescript June night in 1940, Belgium would win his next-to-last fight by TKO, rushed home to pick up wife Mae, and a short time later in a local hospital, Shirley would enter the world.

And from that point, not only was a drag racing legend born, her reputation as an oftentimes hard-headed fighter of a different kind was born. She would go on to fight bullies in school, drag racing officials and opponents who looked down upon her with disdain because she was a woman in a “man’s sport,” and even race fans who were obviously no fans of hers that would call her every vile, disgusting, sexist and profane word in the book.

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Shirley Muldowney (Photo: Rob Geiger)

All because she was “a girl.”

All Muldowney ever wanted was a chance to prove herself, that she was every bit as good as any male drag racer. And you know what? She did just that, becoming the first woman to earn a professional drag racing license, the first woman to win a national event, the first woman to win a major racing championship and the first woman to win three NHRA Top Fuel titles (and a fourth in the rival American Hot Rod Association).

Muldowney raced until her retirement at the end of the 2003 season, a career that spanned more than four decades, perhaps as much as a million miles of barnstorming to grudge match races in the U.S. and Canada, and overcame a near-fatal crash in 1984.

They even made a movie about her life, the still popular “Heart Like A Wheel.”

Now, Shirley is in the biggest fight yet of her life – and it will be fought not on four wheels, but on a surgical bed.

MORE: BREAKING NEWS: Legendary NHRA driver Shirley Muldowney to undergo cancer surgery

Early Wednesday morning at a Charlotte, North Carolina hospital, the 75-year-old Muldowney will don a hospital gown, be rolled into an operating room, will be anesthetized and wake up more than five hours later – minus her right lung.

Muldowney has Stage 2 lung cancer, discovered only recently. According to various online research studies, Stage 2 cancer victims only have about a 30 percent chance of still being alive five years after surgery.

But this is not just another cancer statistic or unlucky victim. This is Shirley Roque Muldowney. All her fighting over the last seven decades has been just a warm-up for the bout she is about to undergo.

Yet knowing Shirley as I have for more than 30 years, she’s going into this next journey of her life in the same way she’s described herself to me over the years: “a tough broad.”

She has to be scared – even the most fearless shudder when the “C” word is mentioned – but I’ve never, ever seen Muldowney let her guard down and show fear. (Well, once, which I’ll get to shortly.)

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Shirley Muldowney in her prime and at her favorite racetrack, Lucas Oil Raceway, home of the NHRAs biggest annual race, the U.S. Nationals. (Photo: Auto Imagery)

Ironically, when I first met her in 1983 at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis – which began a 15-year stint as USA Today’s first NHRA drag racing writer – it was I who was scared.

Growing up on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side and being in more than my share of fights (I was usually the one picked upon, much like Muldowney), I also learned not to be afraid of anything.

But Muldowney’s reputation indeed scared me. I heard she was not only tough with fellow racers, but also with the media.

When Shirley’s PR person, Francine Lippsman, approached me to interview her, I was apprehensive but still went along.

Within five minutes of meeting Muldowney, all the rumors and stories of her being this quarter-mile ogre were quickly dispelled. She couldn’t have been more pleasant, more accommodating, more patient.

That day was the start of a long friendship. As a reporter, you’re supposed to be objective, but I can honestly say that of all the thousands of athletes across all varieties of sports that I’ve covered and interviewed over the last 35-plus years, I would count those that made the biggest impression upon me on one hand.

There’d be the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton, Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, racers Tony Stewart and John Force … and Shirley Muldowney.

A young Shirley Muldowney (Photo courtesy Rob Geiger)
A young Shirley Muldowney (Photo courtesy Rob Geiger)

I fondly remember all the years and countless interviews I had with Shirley. I remember even more instances where we just shot the bull, not for publication. I remember how she never was politically correct – she ALWAYS said what was on her mind, good or bad, in gentile language or interspersed with more than a few expletives.

I remember how, when she was at her fiery best, she told numerous competitors and even NHRA officials – both behind their back and to their face – to “(eff) off.” I remember when she was so fed up with the NHRA and its politics, even after her three championships, that she pulled up stakes and spent several years racing in the rival International Hot Rod Association.

I can’t count the number of female drag racers over the years that have considered Shirley as either their role model or mentor. Reigning two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders, Pro Stock Motorcycle star Angelle Sampey and even Brittany and John Force – daughters of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force – all cite Muldowney as having a profound impact on their careers.

Behind the wheel of her hot pink dragster, Muldowney blazed the path for all female drag racers, and they have not overlooked or underscored the fact that had it not been for what she went through in her career, they might not be doing what they are today in their own careers.

On a more light note, and even though she has a grown son, I also fondly remember Shirley’s “baby,” her pride and joy, a little mixed breed dog named “Skippy,” who followed her from track to track for more than 15 years.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 27: Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney (R) and NHRA driver Larry Dixon (L) speak with the media, during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, held at University Hilton on January 27, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney (R) and NHRA driver Larry Dixon (L) a few years ago in Charlotte. Dixon recently beat throat cancer, while Muldowney will have surgery for lung cancer on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

I admit, since hearing of Shirley’s condition and pending surgery earlier today, I’ve been thinking non-stop of her. I’m praying for her like I would pray for a close relative.

Which leads me to a story that only three people really know: Shirley, fellow drag racing legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and myself. Please indulge me to tell it to you now.

It was January 25, 1994. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. It was eight days after the terrible Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley area, which killed nearly 60 people and injured over 8,500.

I had been scheduled to interview Prudhomme at his shop a few miles south of Northridge. I admit, having been in the 5.5 magnitude aftershock of the Whittier, California earthquake in 1987, I really was hesitant to go back out the West Coast. But I put away my fear, flew out there and found my way to Snake’s shop that morning.

When I arrived at Prudhomme’s shop, I recall seeing a building maybe 500 feet away that was missing a roof and 1 ½ walls. It was leaning precariously. Meanwhile, Prudhomme’s shop had just minimal damage. Go figure.

After more than an hour of interviewing him, Prudhomme asked if I’d like to take a ride. He wanted to show me the devastation wrought by the earthquake.

We drove for about 20 minutes or so. I was astounded, never having seen such destruction before. It looked as if a proverbial bomb had gone off.

As we passed by the heavily damaged Northridge Fashion Center and Cal State Northridge University, Prudhomme suggested we stop at a little non-descript house less than a block from the campus.

“Let’s go see Shirley,” Prudhomme said with a smile on his face. A few minutes later and unannounced, we rang her doorbell and she answered. While she was happy to see us and greeted us warmly, I could see something was wrong. Shirley just wasn’t Shirley.

Finally, she said something to the effect of “I’m scared s***less. I want to go back to (her adopted state of) Michigan. I can’t stand it here. I’ve gotta get out of California. I’m really afraid that there’s going to be another earthquake. If that wasn’t the ‘big one,’ it sure as hell was pretty damn close.”

After all that she had to endure in her life, for all the put-downs and beat-downs and insults, she still managed to go on to become one of the greatest drag racers in history.

But at this particular moment, one thing was very, very clear.

For the first time in her life, Shirley Muldowney was really, truly scared.

She not just showed fear, she was essentially petrified. It was so uncharacteristic of her usual in-control-of-everything personality.

She admitted she hadn’t slept well the last seven nights – especially after she was knocked out of bed at 4:30 a.m. PT when the quake first hit on Jan. 17, 1994.

I still recall how Muldowney shook slightly when she showed some of the structural damage her house sustained in the quake. I can guarantee it wasn’t exactly the kind of tour of her house that she was used to giving.

Just a few months later, Muldowney stayed true to her word: she was on her way back to the Wolverine State. She put California in her rearview mirror and she went back to having the “no fear” aura that made her famous.

Hell, if the only thing in life that had ever scared her was an earthquake, then given Shirley’s makeup, cancer doesn’t stand a chance with the self-described “tough broad.”

She’ll not only kick cancer’s ass, she’ll beat it too, just like she did with virtually every driver who ever dared challenge her for supremacy of the quarter-mile.

When she is wheeled into that operating room Wednesday, Muldowney will once again take the gloves off, ready to fight for herself once again – just like she’s done her whole life.

The “big C” doesn’t stand a chance.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Here are your Indy 500/Carb Day times this weekend on NBCSN

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Our colleagues at ABC have the race telecast on Sunday, but NBCSN still has plenty of coverage from Indianapolis this weekend including most of Friday.

Thursday we’re all over Monaco for first and second practice for the Grand Prix. Then Carb Day, we head to Indianapolis for 500 coverage, which also includes Indy Lights and the pit stop competition, before the 90-minute NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special.

The full release and this weekend’s full slate of motorsports content across NBC Sports Group properties can be found here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

NBCSN, the cable home of IndyCar, will provide six hours of Indianapolis 500 Carb Day coverage, beginning Friday at 11 a.m. ET. In addition, NBCSN will air a live presentation of the Indy Lights Freedom 100 race at noon ET on Friday. Indy 500 coverage concludes on Saturday with the Indy 500 Festival Parade at 10 p.m. ET.

This weekend’s coverage includes IndyCar on NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell, who qualified in fourth place for this weekend’s 100th running of the Indy 500. Bell will be driving for Andretti Autosport, and this will mark his 10th appearance at the Indy 500. Bell’s best Indy 500 finish was fourth position in the 2009 race. Last year, he finished in 14th place.

Kevin Lee will lead NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, filling in for Diffey who will be in Monaco, alongside analysts Bell and Paul Tracy. Jon Beekhuis, Marty Snider, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will handle the pits.

Date Program Time (ET) Network
Fri., May 23 Indy 500 Carb Day 11 a.m. NBCSN
Indy Lights – Freedom 100 Noon NBCSN
Indy 500 Carb Day 1 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR America Motorsports Special 3:30 p.m. NBCSN
Sat., May 24 Indy 500 Festival Parade 10 p.m. NBCSN

Here are your Monaco GP TV times, part of packed racing weekend

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This weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix takes place from the streets of Monte Carlo. The majority of the NBC Sports Group Formula 1 team is on site, as part of a massive weekend of racing coverage across the NBC Sports family.

Meanwhile two of our other race series properties – the Verizon IndyCar Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – are also running this weekend. The 100th Indianapolis 500 is on ABC (Carb Day coverage is on NBCSN) and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 is on FOX.

Here’s a look ahead to all times and schedule for F1 at Monaco this weekend. The full release can be found at the NBC Sports Group Press Box website, linked here.

For race coverage on Sunday, check your local listings, as some affiliates (Indianapolis, traditionally) opt for local programming including Indianapolis 500 pre-race content.

NBC Sports presents live coverage of the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix, one of the world’s most iconic racing events from picturesque Monte Carlo, this Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC. The F1 Monaco Grand Prix will highlight more than 50 hours of coverage on NBC and NBCSN surrounding the “Biggest Day In Motorsports,” spanning Formula One, the Verizon IndyCar Series, and NASCAR.

NBC Sports Group is the U.S. television home of motorsports, providing exclusive Formula One coverage, exclusive cable coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series on NBCSN, and the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, as well as 19 XFINITY Series events. NBC’s coverage of the F1 Monaco Grand Prix kicks off the “Biggest Day In Motorsports” this Sunday, followed by the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 (ABC) and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 (FOX).

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX – SUNDAY AT 7:30 A.M. ET ON NBC – COVERAGE BEGINS THURSDAY AT 8 A.M. ET ON NBCSN WITH PRACTICE 2

NBC Sports Group begins its comprehensive live coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday morning at 4 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra with Practice 1, followed by NBCSN’s presentation of Practice 2 on Thursday at 8 a.m. ET. Live Extra will stream Practice 3 on Saturday morning at 5 a.m. ET, leading into live qualifying coverage on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET. Sunday’s coverage begins at 7 a.m. ETwith F1 Countdown on NBCSN, leading into live race coverage at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC.

Lead F1 announcer Leigh Diffey will call this weekend’s action, and will be joined by veteran analyst and former racecar driver David Hobbs, analyst and former race mechanic for the Benetton F1 team Steve Matchett, and F1 insider Will Buxton, all on-site from Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Pre-race coverage on NBC and NBCSN will include interviews with 18-year-old driver Max Verstappen (Red Bull), who became the youngest F1 race winner ever with his Spanish Grand Prix win on May 14, as well as Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, who considers Monaco to be his home race, and is in search of his fourth consecutive Monaco Grand Prix win. Rosberg and teammate Lewis Hamilton will look to rebound from their performances at the Spanish Grand Prix, when the two collided on the first lap and were forced to retire from the race.

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX TELECAST SCHEDULE
Date Program Time (ET) Network
Thu., May 26 F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 1 4 a.m. NBC Sports Live Extra
F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 2 8 a.m. NBCSN
Fri., May 27 F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 2 (Encore) 12 a.m. NBCSN
Sat., May 28 F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Practice 3 5 a.m. NBC Sports Live Extra
F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Qualifying 8 a.m. NBCSN
/DRIVE on NBC Sports – Monaco (Encore) 3 p.m. NBCSN
F1 Monaco Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) 11:30 p.m. NBCSN
Sun., May 29 F1 Countdown 7 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Monaco Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBC
F1 Extra 10 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Monaco Grand Prix (Encore) 10:30 p.m. NBCSN
F1 Extra 1 p.m. NBCSN
GP2 – Monaco 1:30 p.m. NBCSN

BREAKING NEWS: Legendary NHRA driver Shirley Muldowney to undergo cancer surgery

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 27:  Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney speaks with the media, during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, held at University Hilton on January 27, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Photos: Getty Images
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Shirley Muldowney has received cheers for more than 50 years for her drag racing exploits.

Now, the three-time Top Fuel champion needs cheers – and prayers – more than ever.

Muldowney, 75, will undergo surgery Wednesday morning at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, after being diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer.

“The fans have always been what’s kept me going and I’m sure people will be concerned about me now,” Muldowney said in a statement issued by her agent, Rob Geiger. “Well don’t be; I’ll be fine. There’s still a lot of things left I want to do.”

Renowned thoracic/cardiac surgeon Dr. Harold Howe will remove Muldowney’s right lung in what is expected to be a five-hour surgery.

“I’m a fighter, always have been, and I’m going to fight this as best I can with everything I got,” Muldowney said. “Dr. Howe is the No. 1 guy in the business and he’s as ready as I am to get this thing out of me.

“I’m ready for the pain to stop. It’s been getting worse the last few weeks as they did biopsies and the pre-op stress tests to make sure I was strong enough to have the surgery. Everything is good, so we’re getting it done.”

Shirley Muldowney, at the height of her NHRA drag racing career.
Shirley Muldowney, at the height of her NHRA drag racing career. Photo: Getty Images.

 

Earlier this year, Muldowney established the Shirley’s Kids charity (ShirleysKids.org) to help kids in need. Four children have already received donations from Muldowney’s charity in conjunction with NHRA national events this season at Gainesville (Florida), Charlotte, Houston and two weeks ago at Atlanta.

Backed by corporate support, Shirley’s Kids conveys 100 percent of donations to needy children. Muldowney has asked that in lieu of flowers or cards, donations be sent to her charity to further its work and efforts.

“The most joy I’ve had in years has come this season working with our little team at Shirley’s Kids,” Muldowney said. “If people can find it in their hearts to make a donation, that would brighten my spirits immensely because I know where all the money in this charity goes — right to the kids that need it. And believe me we have changed some people’s lives for the better.

“Thank you in advance for all the love and prayers. It all helps. My sister (Linda Roque) and niece (Betty Peek) along with Stan and Sheila (close friends Stan and Sheila May Holt) are here with me so I’m in great hands.”

Because of the surgery and post-op recovery/rehabilitation time, Muldowney has understandably cancelled upcoming appearances at Englishtown, New Jersey, and Bristol, Tennessee.

Updates on Muldowney’s condition and when she will resume appearances will be on ShirleysKids.org.

As she prepares for surgery, Muldowney gave a valuable public message to her fans and others:

“I urge everyone to keep up with their health and get chest x-rays as often as possible to make sure they are okay,” Muldowney said.

Long known as the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” Muldowney has long been one of the most popular and colorful drivers in the sport. She began racing in the 1950s near her hometown of Schenectady, New York, became the first female to earn an NHRA professional license and became the first female to win an NHRA pro race (1976 in Columbus, Ohio).

She then went on to extensive Top Fuel success, including winning championships in 1977 – the first female driver to earn a major motorsports championship – as well as 1980 and 1982.

She also the Top Fuel championship in the rival American Hot Rod Association in 1981, giving her four championships in six years.

Follow @JerryBonkowski