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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.

Josef Newgarden named honorary chairman of Rev fundraiser at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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New Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has been named as honorary chairman of the 2017 Rev fundraiser to benefit Methodist Health Foundation.

This year’s edition of Rev, which brings together luminaries including drivers of the Verizon IndyCar Series, as well as fans and philanthropists, will be held May 6 in the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“This is our main fundraiser which also serves to kick off the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Methodist Health Foundation Chief Development Officer Sally McGuffey said in a media release. “Rev has grown to become one of the city’s premier foodie events, with cuisine inspired by drivers and Indy’s top chefs.

Part of the festivities of the 2016 Rev at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo courtesy IndyCar)
Part of the festivities of the 2016 Rev at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo courtesy IndyCar)

“The event’s mission is to raise funds and awareness for Indiana University Health statewide trauma programs, including those that provide care for drivers and patrons at the Indiana University Health Emergency Medical Center of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Rev is presented by Fifth Third Bank and this year’s edition will see the addition of Milktooth restaurant, a well-known Indianapolis eatery that is ranked in the top 10 of Bonappetit.com’s best restaurants in the United States. Milktooth will be one of more than 60 restaurants that will be offering some of their top delicacies to Rev attendees.

Last year’s Rev drew over 3,000 attendees to IMS for not only great food, but also live music and dancing. It has become one of the premier ways for fans to interact with IndyCar drivers while also contributing to a worthy charitable cause.

Newgarden is entering his first season with Team Penske – he’ll drive the No. 2 Chevrolet – and sixth overall season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He finished fourth in last year’s final standings.

“It’s a great honor to be partner with Rev this year for a cause that does so much for the community of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Newgarden said. “The growth of this event in such a short time is a testament to the hard work everyone puts in to support Methodist Health Foundation. I’m really looking forward to helping the event continue the upward trend.”

This will be Rev’s fourth consecutive year of being hosted by IMS.

“The relationship of IU Health and Methodist Health Foundation with IMS is over 100 years old and great events like Rev help make our partnership stronger than ever, while ensuring that both drivers and fans continue to receive top-notch care,” IMS president Doug Boles said. “Josef is a fantastic addition to this year’s Rev team and will ensure the event continues to grow and serve as an excellent Month of May kickoff.”

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INDYCAR, Firestone announce long-term extension

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Firestone has extended its contract with INDYCAR in a multi-year agreement, beyond its current deal which was set to expire at the end of 2018.

The move continues INDYCAR’s relationship with the tire manufacturer, as Firestone re-entered the series in 1995 after testing all of 1994. Firestone has been the exclusive tire partner since 2000. This is another extension that follows not long after the Dallara continuation through 2020, announced last week at the North American International Auto Show.

Another key note in today’s extension is that the wishes of drivers to have red sidewall alternate tires run in practice prior to qualifying has been granted. One set will be made available for Friday practice at all road and street course races this year.

The release from INDYCAR is below:

INDYCAR announced a multiyear contract extension today with Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC (BATO), continuing its longtime partnership with Firestone as the official tire supplier of the Verizon IndyCar Series. The announcement extends the tire brand’s involvement in open-wheel racing that dates to Ray Harroun’s Firestone-equipped Marmon Wasp winning the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

“Firestone is part of the fabric of INDYCAR and its commitment to evolving performance, innovation and safety in the Verizon IndyCar Series has been remarkable,” said Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations. “The Firestone brand has been part of our sport for more than 100 years and continues to be an integral partner in the growth of INDYCAR on and off the racetrack.”

Firestone has been involved in racing competitions since the early days of the automobile, particularly at the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Alexander Rossi’s win at the 100th Running of the Indy 500 last May was the 67th for Firestone – more than all other tire manufacturers combined – in the iconic race. Firestone, which returned to Indy car racing in 1995 following a 20-year hiatus, has been the sole supplier of Verizon IndyCar Series tires since 2000 and provides teams with a known, stable and reliable platform for the future of INDYCAR.

“For more than a century, the Firestone brand has utilized racing as the ideal stage to showcase the trusted dependability of our tires,” said Lisa Boggs, director of motorsports, Bridgestone Americas. “This partnership is integral to our marketing initiatives as it allows us to engage with fans via the unique, multi-faceted platform that the Verizon IndyCar Series provides, and we look forward to building upon the brand’s time-tested racing legacy.”

This season, following discussion with Verizon IndyCar Series teams, INDYCAR and Firestone have added to the overall tire allotment at each event to increase the amount of on-track activity during practice sessions. Additionally, teams will be permitted to run one set of alternate (red-sidewall) Firestone Firehawk tires during Friday practice sessions at all road/street course events to better evaluate their capabilities for qualifying and the race.

In addition to its contributions to on-track competition, Firestone is a key partner in the marketing and promotion of the Verizon IndyCar Series. The season-long activation for Firestone includes sponsorship of race events, on-site fan engagement via the INDYCAR Fan Village and a national advertising campaign that spans television, radio and print/digital media outlets.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12

Franchitti: Ganassi to Honda ‘creates interest in manufacturer battle’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #50 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda holds up his fist in celebration of wining the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianpolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Dario Franchitti’s most successful years in his illustrious IndyCar career came with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

The Scotsman never drove for any other engine manufacturer full-time in his run from 1998 to 2013, after Mercedes-Benz initially brought him to the United States in 1997, when he debuted with Hogan Racing.

Ganassi’s switch back to Honda power and aero kits this year after a three-year shift to Chevrolet is one of the key story lines going into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and Franchitti seems bullish on the prospects.

“I think it’s good for the series to have the two top teams with different manufacturers,” Franchitti told my NBC Sports colleague Luke Smith at this weekend’s Autosport International show.

“I think it creates more interest in that battle. From that point of view I think it’s good. Obviously Penske were quite dominant last year. We need to redress that balance this year.”

Team Penske asserted itself a bit further ahead of Ganassi this past season when both teams had the Chevrolet engines and aero kits. Penske won 10 races among three of its four drivers to Ganassi’s two, achieved only by Scott Dixon.

Other gaps saw Penske saw 12 other podium finishes beyond the wins, for a total of 22, while Ganassi scored only six total podiums.

In qualifying, Penske made 28 combined appearances of a possible 60 in the Firestone Fast Six on road and street courses; Ganassi made 13. Last year Penske won 11 of 16 pole positions; in 2015, that number was 13 of 16.

The balance was more even in 2015, when Dixon edged Juan Pablo Montoya for the title on a three-two win tiebreaker. Penske and Ganassi each won three races. Penske had 12 other podiums and Ganassi seven. The qualifying advantage maintained itself with Penske ahead 26-8 in Firestone Fast Six appearances.

With the manufacturer aero kits frozen for 2017 and Honda’s behind in the road and street course and short oval configurations, wizardry and engineering from the Ganassi staff will be needed to account for the performance deficits from an aero side, while Honda should be able to make strides from a power perspective.

It’s expected the Honda kit will remain ahead on the superspeedways, which gives Ganassi’s crew a better shout at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, places they struggled this past year.

The team’s initial test with all four cars at Sebring’s short course held earlier this month was a very productive one, according to Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the program,” Franchitti explained. “In the team everyone is working. I mean you see it all the time, everyone works hard all the time, but you see a real confidence in the workshop.

“We tested at Sebring. I was talking to Mike Hull last night (Friday) and he said that everyone was feeling really good about things. Everyone is working on all aspects of our program and working really hard to improve it.”

Ganassi’s title success, bar Dixon’s 2015 triumph, have come exclusively with Honda. Last year marked the 20-year anniversary of the team’s first title with Jimmy Vasser, which set sail for the team’s first of two four-in-a-row title runs in a CART era of open chassis, manufacturer and tire competition from 1996 through 1999 with Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Montoya.

A further run of four followed once Franchitti rejoined IndyCar in 2009 after one year in NASCAR. Dixon scored his second of four titles (2008) to kick off that run in what became the all-spec Dallara-Honda period in IndyCar, and Franchitti followed with three storming runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The 2011 title was Franchitti’s fourth and last of his career, with his final win coming a year later in dramatic fashion at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. The series introduced the new Dallara DW12 chassis and the new engine formula of 2.2L V6 turbocharged engines.

It’s been funny to see Franchitti as the lone individual wearing a Chevrolet shirt at Honda hospitality the last few years so with Ganassi back at Honda, the humorous moments are resigned just to the conversations now.

“Every race I won was with a Honda, so I still have a lot of friends there. It was always a bit awkward when I went for lunch at Honda with a Chevy shirt on! But the Chevy guys with Ilmor as well, they were great guys to work with.”

Kevin Magnussen arrives for first visit to Haas F1 headquarters

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and Renault Sport F1 talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 1, 2016 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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On Monday, it was a day of confirmations – Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Williams) and Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber) – all became official after weeks of speculation.

One driver confirmed much earlier, Kevin Magnussen to Haas F1 Team, has now made his first official visit to Haas F1 Team’s United Kingdom headquarters in Banbury. He’ll be there for a couple days to complete most of the preseason marketing and media-gathering tasks.

The Dane will enter his third full-time season in Formula 1 with his third different team, as he joins Haas for 2017 and beyond after a year apiece at Renault (2016) and McLaren (2014).

Magnussen has gone through HQ and the Haas F1 social team has taken us along for the ride. Here’s a few pics:

Magnussen’s former team, Renault, was up to the task of bantering as Haas welcomes Magnussen to HQ.