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.

Formula 1 Roundtable: Monaco

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As part of the motorsport trifecta that makes this weekend arguably the biggest of the racing year, things will kick off on Sunday morning with Formula 1’s annual glamor event: the Monaco Grand Prix.

On the streets where high society meets high velocity, there is no better place to be seen than Monaco this weekend – even if Fernand Alonso may disagree following his decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500 – both on- and off-track.

Following our first roundtable pieces at the start of the year, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavinge are back to share their thoughts after the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and preview this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

What have you made of the season so far?

Luke Smith: F1 2017 has lived up to all of the pre-season hype and then some. The new cars have been brilliant, delighting fans and spectators as well as posing a significant challenge to the drivers behind the wheel. Sure, overtaking hasn’t been coming as thick and fast, but as I wrote post-China, that’s no bad thing.

The rivalry hotting up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has the makings of a classic. Ferrari and Mercedes are so evenly matched this year that I expect this title to be decided by fine margins – every race and point counts.

In short: F1 is awesome right now. Let’s relish the season that is unfolding.

Tony DiZinno: It’s been a needed start to the year in 2017. Even if the racing itself hasn’t been scintillating, the drama has – for the first time in five years there seems a proper question over who’s going to win at a given weekend. It’s not a slam dunk, and that’s brilliant.

We’re getting treated to the Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton bout the sport has so richly deserved, and the new cars are back to looking like badass F1 cars again. Add in the packed battle in the midfield and there’s been more variety than normal this year, which is a good thing.

Kyle Lavigne: The 2017 season has actually been better than I expected. Amongst all the talk about new cars and aerodynamic regulations, concern was high that the racing would suffer.

While overtaking is down a little, the races have all been very compelling and featured a fantastic balance of driver skill and strategy. And, overtaking hasn’t suffered as much as maybe we thought (e.g.: Lewis Hamilton’s outside pass of Sebastian Vettel during the Spanish Grand Prix).

And for Ferrari to be so even matched with Mercedes makes this season a proper fight amongst two giants of Formula 1. Quite simply: this is the best Formula 1 season we’ve had in years.

What is your favorite part of the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: The pizzazz and show surrounding Monaco speaks for itself, but my favorite part of the weekend is the on-track challenge that is posed to drivers.

The close confines of the street course with the armco barrier waiting to punish any mistakes make this one of the biggest challenges in all of motorsport, just as rookie Lance Stroll found out on Thursday. And believe it or not, what you see on your TV screen makes the the track seem much wider than it actually is!

So that’s why I love Monaco. No, we’re not going to get hundreds (or maybe even tens) of overtakes. But you do get to see drivers pushing to the absolute limit on a track that has no right to host a grand prix. It’s magic.

TDZ: The contrast. The atmosphere between the streets, glitz and glamour of the backdrop of the race versus the intensity of the drivers wheeling between those armco barriers is great.

I’ve also been a big fan of this race’s unpredictability. Sometimes you get a genuine shocker of a result and the race sticks out in your memory afterwards.

KL: Formula 1 cars are pure thoroughbreds…fighter jets on wheels, if you will. Watching cars of that caliber speed through streets as narrow as the ones in Monaco is hair-raising, and those walls are always so close to grabbing you (as Luke mentioned: Lance Stroll learned that the hard way earlier in the weekend).

Overtaking is always a challenge, but that also means the ones we get will be breathtaking. I expect yet another intriguing race of driver skill and strategy.

Who is your pick to win the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: I’ll go with Sebastian Vettel. Ferrari and Mercedes have been so evenly matched this year that picking between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton is tough. But with hot conditions expected all weekend and Mercedes having struggled to get to grips with the softer tire compounds, I think it will play into Ferrari’s hands.

It would be a key victory for Ferrari as it looks to break a long-running hoodoo in Monaco. The Scuderia has not won in the principality since 2001 when Michael Schumacher stood on the top step of the podium.

As Vettel continues to trace his hero’s footsteps, victory in Monaco would be poignant.

TDZ: If not this year, then when for Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari at Monaco? In the fightback battle where no one has yet won two races in a row in the opening five races – it’s alternated between Vettel (Australia), Hamilton (China), Vettel (Bahrain), Valtteri Bottas (Russia) and Hamilton (Spain) – I’ve got my money on Vettel to bring it home.

KL: Sebastian Vettel was nearly half-a-second quicker than anyone else in FP2. He and Lewis Hamilton seem to be alternating wins this year. Hamilton won the last race, so Vettel is my pick to win this race.

However, this might also best chance for Red Bull Racing to make some noise. Max Verstappen was third in FP1, while Daniel Ricciardo was second in FP2. If not for a strategy blunder, Ricciardo was looking good to win this race last year. It’s difficult to imagine anyone beating Ferrari or Mercedes straight up right now, but this may represent Red Bull’s best shot.

Monaco offers incredible lifestyle, sporting experiences (VIDEO)

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Both on and off the track, there are very few places like Monaco.

A hub for the rich and famous, through the Formula 1 race weekend, the city becomes the most exclusive place in the world. If you want to be seen, you need to be in Monaco.

Away from the glitz and the glamor, it is an F1 weekend with an added twist: the challenge is unlike any other on the planet as drivers have to retain their focus to take one of motorsport’s toughest circuits.

In this video, we hear from Mika Hakkinen (two-time F1 world champion, 1998 Monaco GP winner), Jenson Button (2009 F1 champion and Monaco GP winner), Sergio Perez (2016 Monaco GP podium finisher) and Stoffel Vandoorne (Monaco GP2 winner) about what makes the race so special.

Karam: ‘I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place’

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).

Here’s his third entry, as he recaps qualifying and final practice, and is prepared for Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil where he will start 21st.

You can read his firstsecond and third blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing. 

Hey there, Sage Karam back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We’re almost to race day, finally.

It’s been a hectic week since my last blog with you. We qualified two days last Saturday and Sunday. We trimmed out the downforce on the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevrolet for Saturday and ran almost a 228-mile per hour average.

It wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful either. We worked in the garage on Saturday night and Sunday morning to improve the car for Sunday’s final day of qualifications. And, despite not running any laps in the practice, we came out strong.

I ran my first 230 mph lap on the first circuit of the four-lap average and I was super pumped up. The car felt good and I was thrilled with the 230. Now, I have to admit I was so excited with that lap that I messed up a bit on the next lap. I didn’t shift down to fifth gear for a few more RPMs on lap two. And I had to lift off the throttle just a bit in fighting some wind off of turn two.

After the four laps, we had a 229.380 mph average and I was excited. However, the other guys ran well too, and we’ll start 21st this Sunday. Last year, I started 23rd and moved up to fourth by lap 94. That’s before I got a little too aggressive and got caught outside with another car in turn one and hit the wall pretty hard.

I think I have learned a lot since that incident last year at Indy. This will be my fourth Indy 500 and I am still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I feel I have matured since last year. Heck, when I was 19 and in my first Indy 500, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just driving hard and trying to get to the finish. We came from 31st to finish ninth and I received the “Hard Charger Award” in 2014 as a rookie.

My Mecum DRR crew worked on getting back the race setup with my car for Monday’s final practice session and the car was good. Just like the final practice last year. I feel confident we can pass other cars. We did that in Monday’s runs.

Race week is always busy because you don’t spend much time on track. You do a lot of media and promotion for the race.

After Monday, it was off to Philadelphia with my neighbor, Marco Andretti. I grew up across the street from the Andrettis in Nazareth, Pa. So, we have been friends a long time. In Philly, we did the annual Indy 500 media day with a variety of interviews and appearances at Independence Hall, the Art Museum with the famous “Rocky Balboa” steps and posed with the “Rocky” statue.

Then we headed to Citizens Bank Field for the Phillies and Rockies game. Marco and I threw out the first pitches at the game. We saw the Phillies’ manager, Pete Mackanin, and former player Mickey Morandini, who knew a lot about the Indy 500 since he played at Indiana University. We also talked with Bud Black, the Rockies manager, who is a racing fan. His team has a driver pool in the clubhouse the morning of the race. Black has never seen the 500, but it is on his bucket list.

On Wednesday, we went to a local Indianapolis school with Scott Dixon and Ed Jones to have activities and some competition with the kids. It was fun. I was doing a little jump rope with them (below) as well as building an IndyCar out of Legos with a group of children. Dixon’s group beat us in that one. RATS!

It’s funny how all of the drivers can be so competitive off the track too.

Thursday was a little more relaxing for the drivers with media interviews and some sponsor appearances.

Friday was a busy Carb Day for us. The rain during the week made the IMS track surface a little different from Monday’s last practice session.

For some reason, the track had less grip than usual. I’m not sure if it’s because of the rain or the tire wear from the Indy Lights cars. A lot of people seemed to struggle with that today. But, I think we have a good race car like we did last year.

It was a good practice week and a good month overall. I’m feeling good about the car. It feels the same as it did when we unloaded, so that’s excellent.

We were in the Pit Stop Challenge, we placed second in that one in 2014. I thought we had a good chance again. However, Helio’s crew beat us in the first round. It was a disappointment but I am still excited about Sunday’s race.

We’ll see how the weather holds up for Sunday. We might have a few showers in the morning, but I’m hoping the race can get started at 12:15 p.m.

We are looking for a good showing and race to the checkered flag. I believe if we can get to the last 25 laps in a solid position that we can pass cars. I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place.

So, watch for the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy on Sunday. I’ll be fighting to drive to the front.

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Vettel puts Monaco GP pole near-miss down to greed

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Sebastian Vettel was left to settle for second place on the grid for Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Monaco after falling short in the final Q3 shoot-out for pole, with the Ferrari driver blaming greed for his loss of lap time.

Vettel was the favorite to take pole after dominating practice on Thursday and Saturday morning, only to fall 0.043 seconds short of Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen’s time in the final stage of qualifying.

Vettel’s primary F1 drivers’ title rival, Lewis Hamilton, finished a lowly 14th in qualifying, giving the German a golden opportunity to extend his points lead on Sunday.

However, Vettel was more interested in Ferrari’s team result as it secured its second front-row lock-out in the space of three races, even if his own push for more lap time ended up backfiring.

“I don’t really care about [Hamilton’s result]. I think we are both fighting for the best spot for tomorrow,” Vettel said.

“Well done to Kimi, I think he had a better end obviously. I think the car was fine. It was really nice to drive.

“I think I probably pushed a little bit too hard on the first lap in Q3. Went wide in Turn 5. Second attempt again, went a little bit deep, so the second sector, I was probably a bit too greedy, wanted a bit too much and lost a little bit the car.

“I’m sure if you ask anyone after qualy, we all have the feeling that there’s always more. Bottom line: it’s a great result for the team.

“Not as happy as I could have been but, as I said, well done to Kimi.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown starting on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET.