IndyCar: An important weekend for title chase, ovals at Milwaukee IndyFest

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Traditionally a staple on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar in June, the Milwaukee weekend now shifts to August in 2014, which is crucial on several fronts.

From an event standpoint, Milwaukee is the fifth of six oval races this season. While the Indianapolis 500 is and will always be both IndyCar’s biggest and marquee race from an attendance and interest standpoint, the other oval races this year at Texas, Pocono and Iowa have come under fire for perceived lack of attendance.

“It’s hard to compare a Milwaukee or Pocono to St. Petersburg or Long Beach; they’re different environments,” says Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “They have done a really good job at Milwaukee. Sometimes the perception of attendance is one event – street courses feel busier than what they are compared to a Pocono or Iowa, good example, or Texas as well.

“The actual attendance you see at Texas or Iowa isn’t all that different… but like St. Pete, Detroit, there’s more going on at the race. It feels more crowded at Detroit because of confined space. It looks more different than what they are. For ovals it’s a different type of excitement; and there is always going to be more passing.”

It’s an important event for IndyCar to look big – Andretti Sports Marketing has more or less “thrown the kitchen sink” at this event for the last three years, although there’s still something of a mystery as to how well it gets through to the locals.

The upside is that this year’s race comes following the Wisconsin State Fair. A record number of patrons passed through the gates there, and a fair number should have been exposed to IndyFest signage and appearances. Drivers have been in the state for appearances and promotions on-and-off since March. Radio ads and billboards have made the rounds; a good Sunday forecast should encourage a good walk-up number.

But the look will be important, because although Milwaukee is overflowing with history and praise from most in the IndyCar paddock, it needs to work business-wise to ensure its long-term survival. For that, I say, if you’re near the area and claim to be an IndyCar oval fan, you need to put your money where your mouth is, show up, and pack the joint. Here’s a rundown of the events occurring this weekend.

From the series standpoint, the championship now enters its final stretch of three races, in three weekends, on three completely different types of circuits.

The ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is on the legendary, historic one-mile Milwaukee Mile oval. Then it shifts to the flowing road course of Sonoma next week, and the two-mile, bumpy Auto Club Speedway in Fontana the following week.

This is more or less the week Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud, 63 and 64 points behind points leader Will Power (and his Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, who lost the lead at Mid-Ohio) need to make headway and get to within roughly the 30-40 point ballpark of the top two.

There’s 200 available points, plus bonus points, for the final three races with Fontana a double-points race. Hunter-Reay, who’s won the last two Milwaukee races and three in total, has his first ever shot at a race three-peat this weekend.

In his 2012 title-winning season, Hunter-Reay kicked off a string of three wins during the season at Milwaukee, which began his championship charge. Wins at Iowa and Toronto added to it.

None of the other three other than “RHR” have won here. Castroneves, in particular, has had a snakebit history at this track. Past Milwaukee winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon have a mathematical, if less realistic shot at the title but could well play themselves into it with another big week themselves. Neither “JPM” nor “Dixie” has anything to lose.

Then there are the spoilers. Any of 13 drivers have the chance to become IndyCar’s 11th different winner this season, which would tie a record set in the 2000 and 2001 CART seasons.

From that baker’s dozen, Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe are the two I’m watching closely this weekend. Kanaan’s been fast, leading and unlucky on ovals; Hinchcliffe has traditionally run well at Milwaukee.

Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden would also be popular winners – Andretti for the name and the fact it’s his father, Michael’s, organization promoting the event, and Newgarden after his Mid-Ohio near miss.

But whoever wins Sunday will have mastered the combination of pace, patience, balance, setup and traffic.

And so long as there’s a good number of folks in the stands here to see it – so it looks like the historic and major event it can be, and to enhance the NBCSN TV coverage – that’ll be a good day at the office for both INDYCAR and Andretti Sports Marketing.

2017 PRI Show post-weekend notebook

Rahal and Bell's Chris Wheeler. Photo: IndyCar
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The 2017 edition of the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show is in the books for another year. Here’s some notes we gathered from the event at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis.

While INDYCAR did not have a booth at this year’s show, there were still some interesting Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires nuggets to emerge.

RAHAL RUNNING REV

On Thursday, Graham Rahal was named as honorary chair of the Rev Indy charity event, held before the month of May’s on-track activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway really gets going. The event is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, which grew its relationship with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this past year.

The kickoff event was held at legendary St. Elmo’s, at its 1933 Lounge upstairs, with some samples of the food that will be served. Particularly noteworthy was St. Elmo’s trademark shrimp cocktail, which even caught out some local reporters on its heat…

PAGENAUD IN FINE FORM

Pagenaud meets the media. Photo: IndyCar

Further breakouts from him will come in the following days, but Simon Pagenaud was in very good spirits when meeting a small group of reporters on Thursday. The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion mentioned a small relief that he didn’t have to go through the ringer of the champion’s postseason media tour in the days after Sonoma, as he won the season finale. That can be draining, he said, but it allowed him to get refreshed. Since Sonoma, he raced at Petit Le Mans, where he drove with Team Penske’s one-off Oreca 07 Gibson LMP2 car, he went back home to France before coming back to the U.S. for a mix of testing and other year-end commitments.

Of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, Pagenaud said it’s close to the initial Dallara DW12 chassis at its outset, although hailed the better and more balanced weight distribution of the new kit.

He also said it will be a different team dynamic without having Helio Castroneves there full-time. Castroneves, he said, kept all three of Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Will Power grounded and all in good temperament at the same time. Pagenaud made an interesting point that with each of the three full-time drivers all at the same point in their careers – they all have one championship and none has an Indianapolis 500 victory yet – none has the upper hand, and there isn’t the “aura” of Castroneves’ three ‘500 wins hanging over their head.

On top of that, Pagenaud cracked several jokes and hailed his involvement as part of the “Penske Games” social media competition the team created. In some respects, Pagenaud hailed his own lack of success there to generate more notoriety!

SPM’S SMASH, RETURN, THEN PRE-SEBRING SCRAMBLE

The 2018 Dallara UAK got its first crash test – particularly inadvertently – by James Hinchcliffe during testing last week at Phoenix International Raceway (soon to be ISM Raceway). The team was still in the process of diagnosing what caused a crash at Turn 3 of the 1-mile oval, an odd place to have an impact.

What it’s meant was the car, which is short on spare parts at the moment, had to make it back to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Indianapolis shop and get rebuilt over a 48-hour period in advance of this week’s final round of 2017 testing at Sebring International Raceway’s short course. Testing can run through December 14 before the holiday blackout, and before testing shifts from manufacturer testing to team testing after the new year.

SCHMIDT’S SHANK SYNC-UP FURTHER DETAILS

Schmidt, Steve Eriksen (HPD), Harvey and Shank. Photo: IndyCar

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt was present at Michael Shank’s combination IndyCar and sports car announcements on Friday, which confirmed further details of Jack Harvey’s program for next season. It’s meant to be a three-year deal, and will begin with the six races Harvey will run in 2018. Will Anderson, who has been an assistant engineer with SPM for several years after joining from Dale Coyne Racing, will be Harvey’s race engineer.

SPM will loan a chassis to Shank for testing in January before Shank’s team receives its chassis in February, and that’s an interesting point to note. Schmidt said SPM, which saw its proposed deal with Calmels Sport for next year’s Indianapolis 500 fall through, could still run a third in-house SPM car for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 beyond the two full-time entries and the MSR/Shank car for Harvey.

But Schmidt’s long-term belief and relationship with Harvey helped make the move a reality, as Harvey drove two really strong years with the team in Indy Lights.

“His timeline is our timeline; we were not going to do it for only one year,” Schmidt told NBC Sports. “Jack has been a part of this team for several years and our job is to help him and Mike continue to grow in their IndyCar careers.”

FURTHER TBA’S GETTING REVEALED SOON?

Gathered around the Bell booth in Indy. Photo: IndyCar

If the rumor mill is to be believed, next week could see at least one if not both of the two known outstanding TBA slots at Dale Coyne Racing (No. 19 Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (No. 20 Chevrolet for road and street courses) get revealed.

We spoke to Carpenter at the PRI Show who confirmed the No. 20 car’s road and street course car is “close” to being filled, and is down to just two potential candidates. Asked when he wanted to announce, Carpenter deadpanned, “Last week!”

If you know the names of the free agents that are already out there, you pretty much know who’s in the frame for these two seats.

Carpenter has one more round of testing this week at Sebring. The team has been busy with testing at multiple tracks, and has moved into its new shop on Georgetown Rd. from its previous location near IMS in Speedway, Ind.

BUSY TIMES AT BELL BOOTH WITH INDY, MRTI DRIVERS

Both Carpenter and Spencer Pigot were among a bevy of IndyCar and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires drivers on the Bell Racing U.S.A. stage during the weekend. Others included Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Conor Daly, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey and Pippa Mann, and MRTI veterans Aaron Telitz, Ayla Agren, Juan Piedrahita and Colton Herta.

Additionally, Bell announced it will be opening a pro shop in Speedway. It’s busy times for the helmet manufacturer but one that is held in high regard in the open-wheel and sports car communities.

GOOD TIMES FOR DUSICK’S CHARITY EVENT

Another of the quickly-becoming-a-PRI-staple type events is the “Racers Know Dave Dusick” charity fundraiser, supported by Cooper Tires, which this year supported the Riley Children’s Foundation. That foundation supports Riley Hospital for Children, Indiana’s only comprehensive hospital dedicated exclusively to the care of kids.

A further recap can be found via Dusick’s @IKnowDaveDusick Twitter account; Dusick is a veteran behind-the-scenes member of the racing community, primarily known for his Race Track Engineering business and a member of race control groups in various series. A tweet from Alexander Rossi is below.

CALLAWAY CONFIRMATION GIVES PWC NEEDED SHOT IN THE ARM

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC

Pirelli World Challenge got three good pieces of news in a two-day period last week, with first the pair of Wednesday announcements that K-PAX Racing would switch to Bentley’s Continental GT3 models and Robinson Racing would run a pair of Mercedes-AMG GT4s in the GTS class.

Confirmation of Callaway’s team program for GT in 2018, with Michael Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz the two drivers revealed there, was an added bonus. The striking Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R was unveiled in full, with comments from Reeves Callaway and WC Vision head Greg Gill, with other series insiders present. Aided by the addition of Erin Gahagan as team manager, who has recent PWC experience with EFFORT Racing, that should help Callaway in its entry into the championship. She will continue as team manager for the Tequila Patron ESM team with its Nissan Onroak DPi in IMSA for another season as well.

Cooper’s confirmation keeps him in another GM model after developing into a top-line GT driver the last couple seasons in one of the factory Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs, and after winning a GTS championship in a Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R prior to that. Keilwitz, an ADAC GT Masters veteran, will be new to the U.S. but should learn quickly as other European converts tend to do.

“In a word, hallelujah,” was Gill’s immediate take at the presentation of the new car.

PWC also held its annual “State of the Series” meeting for competitors on Friday afternoon. A combination of the usual marketing, competition and communication updates were revealed to competitors. Some more intriguing elements from that should be revealed at a later date.