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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.

Chilton says IndyCar test debut went “swimmingly well”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 12:  Max Chilton of Great Britain and Marussia speaks with members of the media during the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom on October 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Along with new Chevrolet aerodynamic components being tried out at the “it’s green in February and it’s never this green the later into the year we get” Sonoma Raceway, the other interesting storyline out of Wednesday’s six-car Verizon IndyCar Series test was that it marked Max Chilton’s testing debut with Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Chevrolet.

Chilton’s made the announcement, addressed the media and had his sponsor confirmed within the last week-plus.

But it was on Wednesday that the talking stopped and the driving restarted, for what was not only the 24-year-old Brit’s first time in an IndyCar but also his first time at Sonoma.

“It’s a bit of a shock today,” Chilton said, via a track-issued release. “I haven’t been in a racing car in six months and that was an Indy Lights car, so I’ve got to learn the track today and the car.

“But I think the morning went swimmingly well. I was quicker than I thought I would be.  It’s a really nice kit and I can’t wait to explore it throughout the season.”

Here’s a few photos on social media, either ones he or the track shared, of his maiden day in an IndyCar.

Chilton’s next test comes later this week, still in California, at Auto Club Speedway for his first oval run in an IndyCar.

Chilton joined his three Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, for the test. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud also tested on Wednesday.

Pabst adds Jordan Lloyd as third USF2000 driver

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Pabst Racing has added a third driver to its Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda lineup, in the form of talented 19-year-old Australian driver Jordan Lloyd.

Lloyd raced the first two weekends of last year’s USF2000 season with John Cummiskey Racing before being sidelined due to financial woes, but he showed quite a bit of promise in those two weekends at St. Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park. He finished second in one of the NOLA races.

For 2016, Lloyd returns to the U.S. after winning the CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 championship last year, and was thus awarded with the ‘Road to the World’ scholarship.

“I only touched the tip of the iceberg when I was here in 2015, so on a personal level there is a lot of unfinished business that needs to be tended to,” Lloyd said in a team release. “I am looking forward to a strong season.”

Lloyd, who will drive the No. 21 car, joins the previously announced pairing of Garth Rickards and Yufeng Luo at Pabst, the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin-based team, as the USF2000 field for 2016 continues to grow both in terms of size and talent.

Luca Ghiotto steps up to GP2 with Trident

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Luca Ghiotto (ITA, Trident) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
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Luca Ghiotto will step up to the GP2 Series with Trident in 2016 after an impressive season in GP3 last year that saw him finish second in the championship standings.

Ghiotto made his GP3 debut at the end of 2014 with a four-race run-out for Trident before remaining with the Italian team for 2015.

It proved to be a memorable year as he won five races – more than any other driver – but fell eight points short of the title as Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon was crowed champion in Abu Dhabi.

Ghiotto will remain with Trident for 2016, stepping up to its GP2 operation after a successful test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

“I can’t wait to line-up for this new adventure,” Ghiotto said. “Last year, it was tough for me to fight so hard and not winning the title. However, it has been an extremely useful experience with the help of the excellent teamwork among the whole Trident stable.

“I want to thank once again Maurizio Salvadori and Giacomo Ricci for their support, and the Italian Federation for believing so much in me. I really look forward to be back on-track.”

Newgarden on Phoenix: “You have to be really committed”

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Phoenix International Raceway replaces The Milwaukee Mile on the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2016 schedule as the lone one-mile oval the series competes on.

And that’s exactly where the similarities between the two end.

While Milwaukee’s nearly all-flat banking nature rewards those who find the setup early, and punishes those who don’t, Phoenix is going to be significantly faster and has a series of rises and falls that might make for a more interesting challenge.

Josef Newgarden, who took his first laps during a Chevrolet manufacturer test Monday at Phoenix aboard his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, had high praise for the commitment level it takes to nail a lap at PIR.

“Phoenix, you don’t need as much courage to be flat,” Newgarden told NBC Sports in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It just seems more crazy. From a commitment standpoint, the commitment level is higher, for different reasons.

“From a speed and physicality standpoint, it seems more of a commitment than Milwaukee. That was interesting to me. You really had to be committed… it was almost hard to breathe. It’s a very tough lap.

“It’s easier to be flat than at Milwaukee, and you’re generally flat out, but it seems higher commitment.”

Newgarden, who won his first career IndyCar pole position and dominated at Milwaukee last year, has lamented the loss of the oldest continually operated track from the schedule.

“I loved Milwaukee. It was a very difficult track. It took a lot more courage at Milwaukee to figure out how to get flat, or to get flat,” he admitted.

Newgarden hadn’t been to Phoenix previously and comments leading in – that the track serves as sort of a roller-coaster featuring the track’s legendary, albeit changed, dogleg in the backstraight – were apt.

“The whole thing is flat all around. The dogleg, there’s actually kind of a bit of a hill,” he said.

“You exit out of (Turn) 2, you run up the banking out of 2, then you get high enough, then run down pretty far and it’s kind of a downhill run into the dogleg, then you climb back up before 3. You’re almost constantly going up and down.

“I saw some NASCAR drivers describe it as a roller coaster, and that’s somewhat true. There’s a lot of elevation changes for an oval.”

How intense is the oval on the drivers, from a G-loading standpoint?

“Easy 4 to 5. I’d say 4.2 or 4.5 depending on downforce levels,” Newgarden said.

And that might be the most interesting thing to monitor for when IndyCar arrives at Phoenix, both for the Grand Prix-view open test February 26 and 27 and the race itself on April 2, is what downforce levels teams will opt to run to try to create better racing.

One of North America’s greatest open-wheel oval drivers, Rick Mears, has long been a proponent of less downforce.

Newgarden said less downforce will certainly create more separation and make the cars harder to drive, but it might not provide as close of racing.

“It’s hard to tell. I think if you want to see the cars racing and passing constantly, you’d need more downforce. If you trim it out and guys have to pedal them, it should separate the field better. I think more downforce would equal more racing around there. But it depends on what you want.

“Take Texas for example. Take the downforce away, it’s hard to drive, and there’s no passing. But it’s difficult on the drivers. There’s not as good racing. Add the downforce back, now everyone’s (sort of) packed up, but you’ll have amazing racing action. It really depends on what you want.”

Newgarden’s test was his first day in a car since he and team principal and teammate, Carpenter, tested at Texas Motor Speedway back in October.

A video from IndyCar featuring Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya from the Phoenix test is below.